Who’d want to be baby sitter for Los Angeles County’s five secretive supervisors?
I don’t blame Thomas Mauk, Orange County’s chief executive, for changing his mind and refusing the job of chief administrative officer of Los Angeles County While the parking is good, the building is ugly and the bosses are terrible.
There’s a big myth that the L.A. County supervisors are powerful, three kings and two queens. Actually, all they do is mishandle a runaway health care system, preside powerlessly over social welfare programs and approve zoning for subdivisions in the little remaining vacant land.
I almost forgot. They also decry riots in the jail and refuse do anything about the homeless mentally ill even though the voters a few years ago voted for a state tax increase that could really improve the situation.
While they do nothing, the chief administrative officer’s job is to coddle them, massage their egos and give the impression that they are all on a team, ready for action. They like to think of themselves as “the county family.”
As is the case with all families, giving a favorable impression involves keeping secrets. What happens in the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration stays in the County Hall of Administration.
So whenever a reporter begins asking a county bureaucrat questions, the official fires off a memo to the supervisors and the chief administrative officer, putting them on alert, bringing down the county iron curtain.
When I was in the news business, I thought that covering L.A. County resembled covering the Kremlin during the Brezhnev era, bureaucratic, ponderous, secretive, massive. Not homicidal, like Stalin, just oppressive.
Cracking our county Kremlin is quite a challenge. I hope the current Times editors appreciate their L.A. County beat reporters, Susannah Rosenblatt and Jack Leonard,and give them the encouragement and good play their work deserves.
A couple of weeks before the Times decided to pump some energy into its languid web site, I was discussing the impending changes with Miles Corwin, a former Times guy who is just the kind of journalist the new enterprise needs.
Corwin, now one of my colleagues at the USC Annenberg School for Communications, could do it all, a talent the present Times crew will have to develop as they begin to churn out stories 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a web site that needs to be first with the news if it is to succeed.
Corwin produced great examples of the literary journalism valued by the Times. He has also written two powerful books, The Killing Season, about Los Angeles police homicide investigators, and And Still We Stand, an account of the students and teachers at Crenshaw High School.
But he really prided himself on being a mainstay of the Times nightside, pounding out stories big and small, with and without bylines, a blue-collar journalist.
I told him I thought the paper was going to start something like the Tribune’s 24 hour news operation, chicagotribune.com/news/local/. He laughed and said maybe the paper would now value the night crew, a cynical, hard bitten bunch with a history of legendary characters, most of whom are now gone from the newspaper business and, in some cases, from life.
Some of the Times journalists will have to do more than write a lot of stories. They’ll shoot videos, blog, file quick reports from the scene on their laptops, write an early story for the web site and follow up with something longer and in more depth for the paper. And they’ll have to be first, getting their stories out ahead of the rest of the media. Speed draws web site viewers.
That’s what generations of wire service reporters have done at the Associated Press, Reuters and the once great United Press International. If I was slow in delivering a story or got beat by UPI, I’d catch hell from my boss, the AP Sacramento bureau chief, Morrie Landsberg, whose son, Mitchell, formerly AP, is now an all-purpose star at the Times. At the AP, we wrote four or five dailies on busy days and also did stories with more depth.
It can be done. At Annenberg, we’re training our students to do it. I look at them and think: A new generation of blue collar journalists. Get ready to work nights.
The other night I dropped in on Galpin Ford, not to buy one of the big trucks or SUVs on the floor but to spend some time with Valley Vote, the defeated but unbeaten bunch of Angelenos who scared the pants off of city hall with their 2002 secession campaign.
Yes, they are still around. They meet every month on the second floor of Galpin Motors Inc., owned by Bert Boeckman, the godfather of Valley politics. They discuss city issues with an intensity and intelligence the city council should copy, always guided by their anti government populist views, loyal to the gospel of rebellion as preached by Ron Kaye, the take-no-crap editor of the Daily News.
Kaye takes issues that are rendered into mush by city hall politicians and splashes them across page one in headlines that anyone can understand. Kaye should have been at Galpin Ford. His approach was needed that night.
I was there with David Hernandez, who is suing to stop implementation of Proposition R, the measure that gave city council members another term and made lobby control laws harder to enforce. He talked about the suit and I discussed how the City Ethics Commission is going to implement the measure,
The most interesting speaker was Lisa Sarno, the interim general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which rides herd on LA’s neighborhood councils. She has a relentlessly cheerful style and uses phrases like “skill set.” In other words, the language of city hall.
Since I’m schooled in the language, I could translate. She wants to bring order to the messy world of neighborhood councils.
Her predecessor, Greg Nelson was once chief aide to former City Councilman Joel Wachs, a driving force behind creation of the councils. Nelson’s attitude toward the rowdy grassroots groups was “let 1,000 flowers bloom.” Sarno, who doesn’t seem to approve of the Nelson regime, would let the flowers bloom as long as they are tied to stakes and trellises and lined up neatly in rows.
That’s not the Valley Vote way. Secession bloomed in the Valley because of people resented city hall control of city government. More than four years after the secession election, the resentment is still alive.
Neighborhood councils are weak but they are all we have to defend ourselves against the power of city hall and the developers and unions who control of it.
The weakness was apparent to me last week at a meeting of the commission charged with reviewing the performance of the councils, which have been stumbling along since their creation a few years ago.
The councils are supposed to give neighborhoods a voice in the struggle for power. But all they can do is recommend. Nobody has to listen.
I won’t be offended if you think I’m crazy. Why else would I spend a Thursday evening doing this? Just write it off to the obsessive behavior of a retiree.
What struck me is that a large number of the audience at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista seemed to be people like me, older white people with nothing better to do. The USC Civic Engagement Initiative did a study which found the same thing I noticed at this meeting—the councils do not represent Los Angeles’ ethnic and social diversity.
Mar Vista and Venice, which was also represented at the meeting, are diverse areas that have huge problems with traffic, gangs, growth, ethnic tension, the environment and all the other matters on the civic agenda. I left before the meeting ended but I saw neither the area’s diversity in population nor its problems represented.
This review of the neighborhood council system—run by the Neighborhood Council Review Commission—should come up with ways to strengthen the groups and broaden their membership. The next step for the commission is to tackle how to give these councils real power in solving their neighborhoods problems.
When I ponder the future of the Los Angeles Times, where I worked for more than 30 years, I think of two Tribunes. One is the Chicago Tribune and its “News Now” web site. The other Tribune is in Oakland, where I started.
The Times’ 2007 path is uncertain. The Chicago guys who run the Tribune company are trying to hang on. If they do, we’ll probably end up with something I’ll call the Chicago Model.
The LA rich guys—David Geffen, Eli Broad, Ron Burkle—also want the paper. If one or a combination of them succeed, we could get the Oakland Model.
The Oakland Tribune was run by a rich guy named Joseph R. Knowland and later by his not-so-rich (the perils of Vegas) son, former U.S. Sen. William F. Knowland. Unlike Geffen and Broad, Joseph Knowland was not interested in high culture. His passion was politics and all political news was slanted to fit his right-wing Republican views. The Chandlers ran the Times the same way in the pre-Otis days.
Will Geffen or Broad be like the Knowlands or Chandlers, censoring articles that fall out of line with their views or criticize their friends? I hope not. I would hope that Geffen would accept the Times theater critic writing: “The Geffen season has been abysmal but the latest production at the theater sunk to a new low.”
For the Chicago Model, take a look at the Tribune News Now web site at ChicagoTribune.com. It gives you breaking news from the paper’s 24-hour newsroom. If the tough crew from Chicago holds on, this Chicago Model may be the future of the LA Times and a lot of the staff won’t like it.
Here’s why: In addition to national and foreign stories, there is a huge amount of local news on News Now, posted quickly. Commuter train derails, it’s on the web site right away. Cockfighting ring broken up. It’s the lead story. This takes a crew of writers, pounding it out fast. Such work takes a special talent. But it is a talent devalued at the Times, where gracefully written long stories and deep investigative projects have been the ticket to success. Some of the stars may find themselves working on Times News Now, open 24 hours a day. Their cry will change from “I need two more months for this story” to “When do I get off nights?”
I like the 24- hour web operation and admire reporters who can write fast, prolifically and well. The Times needs a better web site. But I also admire the graceful writing and hard digging of the stars who have made the Times a great paper. One doesn’t exclude the other. I want the impossible, a Geffen, Broad or Burkle with the integrity and independence of Otis Chandler. “Shazam!” as Billy Batson used to say when he became Captain Marvel.