The talk inside and outside the Wilshire Grand’s Los Angeles room was about Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s new jobs czar, the city budget deficit and the collapse of the land development industry.
The occasion was a Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum luncheon featuring Councilwoman Jan Perry, who gave a pessimistic report on the budget. The forum, run by public affairs consultant Emma Schafer, attracts a crowd of lawyers, lobbyists, engineering firm officials and other involved in big public and private projects.
A couple of years ago, with construction booming and Grand Avenue ready to become L.A.’s own Champs-Elysees, the mood at the forum luncheons was great. That was when the mayor actually proclaimed the construction crane as L.A.’s municipal bird.
Before Perry spoke, I talked to lawyers and engineering people about how they were scrambling for work. These aren’t the women and men in unemployment lines. But their tales of stalled and abandoned projects provided a real picture of how the economy is going down.
One of them had been at a meeting conducted by Austin Beutner, an equity investment guy and merchant banker who is the mayor’s new jobs czar. In this post, Beutner must try to boss the independent harbor, airport and water departments, as well as energize and organize the sleepy bureaucracies in planning, redevelopment, and other parts of city government that could help bring jobs to the city. The man I talked to, a veteran of dealing with the city, said the czar position sounded good but would work only if Villaraigosa remained focused on the task and had the guts and determination to fire commissioners and department heads who won’t go along. He also needs the toughness and patience to deal with 15 council members, each of whom thinks he or she is mayor. As the late Nicholas II of Russia learned when the revolutionaries deposed him, the powers of a czar are limited.
I’m pessimistic. The mayor has an incredibly short attention span, comparable to that of one of the men he consulted on Beutner’s hiring, the easily distracted former Mayor Richard Riordan.
Perry’s message was grim. The mounting budget deficit will force layoffs, and this clearly troubled a lawmaker who started in city hall as an aide during the prosperous days. Now she favors a halt to hiring police officers even though her downtown-through-South L.A. district includes crime heavy areas. She fears the threat of municipal bankruptcy. “I have to laugh when people say it isn’t real,” she said.
Interesting how she and Bernard Parks, who represents the adjoining district, are emerging as the council’s fiscal conservatives. They are African Americans, representing districts long suffering from crime and social problems. They are the ones trying to bring hardheaded reality to city hall.
As Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas sees it, the new Martin Luther King Jr. hospital will transform health care for the poor in South Los Angeles and maybe even for the nation.
I talked to the supervisor, who represents South L.A.,, where the hospital was built after the Watts Riot to serve the poor. It has been closed for three years because of its often fatal care of patients. Last year, the Board of Supervisors and the University of California signed an agreement to reopen the hospital under UC supervision.
Ridley-Thomas told me the new 120 -bed hospital, smaller than the old one, will be completed by the end of 2012, and open for patients at the beginning of the following year. A new health clinic is also under construction.
A great weakness of the old hospital was a poorly trained and indifferent staff, all but immune from discipline because of union contracts, county civil service rules and incompetent administrators. When anyone attempted to crack down, the unions would go whining to the Board of Supervisors. In addition, longtime leaders of the African American community felt they had a proprietary interest in the hospital and resisted any change. As the neighborhood became more Latino, L.A.’s racial politics got involved.
Ridley-Thomas noted that the new hospital would be run by a non-profit public -private organization headed by a seven person board, two members named by UC, two by the supervisors and three by both the university and the supervisors. UC would supervise doctors and residents. The hospital board would be in charge of the rest of the staff. The new board and its administrators would bargain with the unions. The supervisors would be out of the picture. Hopefully, this would shield the new enterprise from political pressure.
“They will be employees of the new entity, hired by this non profit entity. The doctors will be hired and overseen by UC, “ Ridley-Thomas said.
I asked what would happen if the unions think the non-profit board is too hard-line in labor negotiations complain to Ridley-Thomas “because you are the supervisor of the district and they supported you financially and in every way in your election campaign?” I wondered if he would tell them “ that’s the (hospital) board’s decision”.
“Exactly. By design,“ the supervisor said.
Ridley-Thomas said another transformative change will be the new hospital’s effort to attract private patients with health insurance. Previously patients had largely been the uninsured poor or Medicaid recipients.
“The success of this will be measured by the patient mix itself,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Those with private insurance will take advantage of this new facility; it will be that attractive. The county’s mandate is to care for the medically indigent but I think in this context you will see people who have the capacity to pay. This is a very, very significant development that will send a message far and wide and has implications for this being a model for the nation.”
Private, paying patients, he said, get better service, often because they have family and friends who constantly complain about bad food and care. “It will transform the culture of this environment. And that’s what I mean that it is transformative,” he said.
Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz is pushing against an immovable object, the billboard lobby.
A judge late last year struck down a questionable settlement between two billboard companies and the city which gave the firms permission to convert up to 840 billboards from a traditional format to the bright, ever changing digital models. The Times reported 92 have been converted. Two of them are on Westwood Boulevard and one is nearby on Santa Monica Boulevard. This is in the heart of Koretz’ Westside 5th District.
You’d think a judge would have some power. Unfortunately, when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green threw out the deal, he left it up to the city to decide whether to revoke the permits held by the two companies, Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor. That was pretty much a guarantee that no signs would be changed back to non-digital.
Koretz introduced a motion calling for removal of all the digital billboards. “They’re a blight,” he told me, “particularly with the large number we have. They’re a distraction to drivers. I was driving past the one south of Wilshire, and I took my eye off the road briefly when it flashed and a jay walking pedestrian ran in front of my car and had a close call.”
But his measure is still in a committee. He wasn’t optimistic about getting much support on the 15 member council, although he’s hopeful that a few colleagues with billboard afflicted districts might help.
Homeowners in his district are stymied. The Westwood South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association (my wife Nancy and I are members) protested that the Building and Safety Department had erred in granting the permits for the three Westwood Boulevard signs. A city appeals officer agreed with them on two of the billboards. But the sign owners have appealed. The appellate machinery grinds slowly.
Billboard clout is legendary. The agreement that permitted all the digital billboards was negotiated by then City Rocky Delgadillo. In a story on another of the billboard legal tangles, Times reporter David Zahniser recalled how Clear Channel Outdoor and other sign companies spent $425,000 on billboards promoting Delgadillo’s successful candidacy five years before he negotiated the agreement.
This will be a big test for Koretz. His opponents will fight in the courts, in the city bureaucracy, in the council and, if necessary, in the office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It’s a multi front war. Go get them, councilman.