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.