Not a trace of the Antonio Villaraigosa grin was to be seen when the mayor walked into the city hall news conference room Wednesday, trailed by a few suits, all of them solemn as sticks.
I had driven downtown to see the mayor in action. He was talking about public employee pensions. That’s a hot story, and I was curious to see what he had to say. It turned out to be more than I bargained for, a minor revolution in city hall. Villaraigosa announced he wanted to reduce pension and health benefits for city employees.
I took a seat on the aisle. It had been some time since I had been in the room, once a major part of my beat. I looked around. There were fewer reporters and cameras than I remembered, evidence of the cutbacks in local news. Everything else was the same, the room with its late ‘20s movie palace décor and light fixtures that are more expensive versions of the ones we have in our late ‘20s faux Spanish style house.
Naturally, the surroundings dragged me back to memory lane. I thought of Yorty—the raffish Mayor Sam, Tom Bradley, his exact opposite and Dick Riordan, whose rambling sentences usually made sense after you figured them out.
In the years that I have observed mayors and city hall, the one constant has been that nobody fools around with the employee unions. They ask and, after negotiations, usually get pretty much what they want.
“This is not the news conference any of us want to happen,” said Villaraigosa. In back of him were standing the most funereal group of people I have seen for a long time, even at funerals. They represented the L.A. chamber of commerce; VICA, the big valley business group, and the League of Women Voters,
The mayor spelled the details--$350 million city deficit; spiraling retiree health and pension costs. Retirees will have to pay more. If the council agrees, the retirement age for civilian workers will be raised to 65. It’s now 55 for employees who have worked for at least 33 years.
What was most interesting to me was the tone of his rhetoric.
It’s time to renegotiate pension rights, he said. If the employee unions don’t like these ideas, what about everyone taking a 10 per cent pay cut? It’s time to “share responsibility” for the city’s fiscal mess. It’s a values issue, he said. “This generation of city workers owes it to the next generation that our pension system is viable.”
In our generous city hall, the employees have grown accustomed to an automatic “yes.” The new word from the unsmiling mayor seems to be“ no.”