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Wed, May

Decline In Political Integrity Is at The Heart of Los Angeles City Council Scandals

Then-Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez speaks at Los Angeles City Hall on April 1, 2022. Photo by Damian Dovarganes, AP Photo

POLITICS

LA CITY COUNCIL - There’s a question on a lot of minds in Los Angeles these days: What is happening to the Los Angeles City Council?

series of criminal cases and other scandals have raised deep concerns about the institutional integrity of the governing body for America’s second-largest city. The collective fallout has implications for Los Angeles, of course, but for California politics at-large and whether Democrats (there aren’t many Republicans left in Los Angeles) can tackle everything from inequality to environmental protection to homelessness.

And, most optimistically, whether L.A.’s crackdown might offer some sort of check on the growing ordinariness of political arrogance and misconduct.

The questions about the council were in the air on Sunday when some of the city’s most influential figures – past and present – gathered at Getty House, the mayor’s official residence. Mayor Karen Bass hosted the event, which included judges, prosecutors, activists, a couple former county supervisors and even a few current and former council members. 

The occasion was the publication of former councilman and supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s thoughtful and important new memoir, “Zev’s Los Angeles,” which has been the talk of civic Los Angeles since its release earlier this month. Much of the conversation was reflective, as the 150 or so guests considered the book, the history it traces and the light it sheds on current affairs.

In that environment, comparisons between the council of Yaroslavsky’s era in the late 20th century and the current group were inevitable. Here’s a reminder of the some of the council’s recent exploits:

And then there were the non-criminal shenanigans. Council President Nury Martinez was forced out of her job last year after she and two colleagues were caught on a recording making racist comments about a colleague’s child and carving up the city’s political boundaries in cahoots with union leaders. Of her two colleagues, one has since left office while the other, Councilman Kevin de Leon, beat back a recall attempt and continues to lurk at City Hall, a source of continuing embarrassment. 

That’s a lot of bad behavior – criminal and otherwise – for a 15-member body over the span of a few years. And it naturally raises the concern that something deeper is happening at City Hall.

One possibility, it’s important to stress, is that this is merely a coincidence. The various criminal cases are not necessarily part of any broader conspiracy, and they are different from one another. Englander and Huizar were convicted for garden-variety corruption – Englander for being a little corrupt, Huizar for being a lot corrupt. Ridley-Thomas, by contrast, has not even been accused of receiving any money, and his case feels specific to his relationship with his son. Price’s remains to be adjudicated, but the charges there are fairly minor compared to some of the others – more akin to ethics violations than big-time felonies. 

As for Martinez et al, they were revealed as racists and petty power-mongers, not as criminals, though their behavior was in some ways even more shocking than that of actual criminals.

Still, it’s hard to recall any point in history where so many council flies dropped so quickly. 

Guests at Getty House had all sorts of theories. The spate of charges and convictions, some said, could be the result of stepped-up work by prosecutors, particularly at the federal level. The threat of a federal grand jury, a few observers noted, can have a powerful effect on witnesses. And the Price case, which is being brought by District Attorney George Gascon, could reflect that office’s desire to keep pace with federal inquiries and Gascon’s own political imperatives – he faces re-election and is widely seen as vulnerable.

Some other thoughts: the changeover of political power from one generation to another; the presence of relative newcomers among City Hall staff as well as elected officials; unfamiliarity with rules and law; a more relaxed and naïve leadership culture. 

But there were two that stood out: the absence of sustained media scrutiny and the preening hubris of those elected to represent city communities.

It is undeniable that Los Angeles media has declined in recent years, particularly in coverage of civic and political life. It’s easy to be nostalgic, and there’s not much point in that, but City Hall once received the sustained attention of more than a dozen reporters at any given time – and many times more during campaigns or crises. Today, coverage is a shell of that.

It flares at moments – the mayoral campaign last year or the discovery of the recording of Martinez and the others – but routine coverage of City Hall is limited to a vastly diminished Los Angeles Times and the occasional interest of others. If you’re a City Council member tempted to do something wrong, it’s much easier today to think that you might get away with it.

And then there’s hubris. At the event for Yaroslavsky, a number of guests suggested this as a root cause of the recent scandals. Members of the City Council represent huge districts of more than 200,000 residents. They are effectively mayors of mid-size cities, feted at parties and treated as dignitaries rather than as neighborhood servants. 

What’s more, they preside over land-use decisions in their districts, giving them actual power over matters where real money is at stake.

That can create a sense of entitlement. Combine it with little fear of getting caught and the result is not pretty.

There is, moreover, a larger issue at work in all of this, and it was Yaroslavsky himself who put his finger on it. When I asked him on Sunday for his analysis of the body where he served from 1975 to 1994, he declined to single out the current council for criticism, but he agreed that institutional integrity – at all levels of government – was under duress.

“There is something wrong,” Yaroslavsky said, as members of the audience nodded in agreement. “Most politicians look down on people.”

That’s an issue that courses through our politics today, from members of Congress who demonstrate their contempt for the truth by denouncing vaccines or leveling false charges against rivals to a former president caught on tape violating the Espionage Act. 

Those are acts of willful misconduct. They treat constituents and the law itself with contempt, and they start at the very top of American politics.

The misdeeds of the Los Angeles City Council do not rise to the level of treason, but they suggest an indifference to the public and an abiding, destructive hubris that permeates across California. If the cases against Los Angeles council members accomplish anything, perhaps it will be to puncture that.

(Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine. This article was first featured in CalMatters.org.)

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