The Los Angeles Times ran a Sunday editorial urging people to recognize that the election on March 5 is a big one that could shape the future of the city for years to come. I'm not sure it will matter — relatively few people vote in City Hall elections, even when an open race for mayor leads the ballot — but the plaintive cry from the paper's editorial board is right. The editorial offers a primer on how governance in Los Angeles is complex and interrelated.
The city is about to undergo a sweeping turnover in municipal government, electing a new mayor, deciding whether to keep or replace the current city attorney, choosing a new controller and electing more than half — the controlling majority — of the City Council. Voters will also elect nearly half of the board running the Los Angeles Unified School District and nearly half of the trustees running the Los Angeles Community College District. They will decide whether to raise the sales tax, and in so doing will be making decisions about how the city deals with its deep fiscal problems and sustains an acceptable level of essential services, and how Angelenos test their leaders' vision for civic life and their grasp of basic City Hall management. All county property owners will be asked — separately, on a different ballot, mailed to them and returned by mail rather than dealt with at the ballot box — whether to tax themselves for storm water cleanup and reclamation projects.
As voters consider a new mayor, they must ask what kind of city Los Angeles is and what they want it to become. It cannot be Chicago or New York or even San Francisco, where the mayor controls public health, welfare and jails — those are functions that Los Angeles, like most Western cities, cedes to county governments. It cannot be London or Paris or Shanghai, where the national government underwrites economic development and takes the lead on public works projects. And L.A.'s mayor, if he or she is to have influence on schools, must do it with strategy, wisdom and political clout rather than by fiat, because city government here has no formal role in running schools.
But the mayor owns the biggest block of votes at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and so has an enormous role in transportation planning and spending well beyond the city limits. If the mayor is a person who knows and understands how to build relationships with other governments, he or she can harness the power of money and political silo-busting to go well beyond the confines of the basic job description and get federal resources for job growth and infrastructure, county coordination on ending homelessness, poverty and crime, and hyper-local buy-in on improving the quality of life in the city's neighborhoods.
But none of that can happen unless the mayor is also a person with the smarts and the courage to keep the city solvent, and to decide when and how to trade off essential city services: more building inspectors, for example, in exchange for fewer police officers? Better emergency response times but fewer graffiti abatement contracts?