By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Los Angeles’ 10th City Council District is a polyglot district of great wealth, great ethnic diversity and, sadly, great poverty. It is a district that has colossal problems and needs.
It suffers from the chronic lack of affordable housing, homelessness, pock-marked streets and sidewalks, lack of green space and recreation facilities, massive need for aid and support for small minority-owned businesses, and high teen and adult joblessness.
It is a district whose residents are in the classic political textbook sense, disenfranchised.
It’s been that way since last October when the City Council suspended the 10th District Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas after he was indicted on federal bribery and conspiracy charges. His trial is scheduled for August. If he is tried then that will mean the district will have gone almost one year without a duly elected representative.
The City Council’s answer to that was to appoint former 10th District Councilman Herb Wesson to fill Ridley-Thomas’ seat pending the outcome of the trial. That backfired. It stirred protests, a lawsuit and a temporary injunction barring Wesson from taking over the seat.
The injunction may or may not hold. But either way, many district residents still see this as little more than a Band-aid solution to the total disfranchisement of the district.
Some residents and neighborhood groups have demanded that Ridley-Thomas resign, and a special election be held to permanently replace him. Others have suggested that the council pick from a pool of names of noted community and political activists an individual to serve as interim council member until Ridley-Thomas’ legal situation is resolved. Still others back Wesson for the job on an interim basis.
The City Council faces a real quandary. No matter which way it goes, there will be opposition.
That leaves 10th District residents back where they started from — still disenfranchised.
There’s a larger question in the 10th District drama. That is what should 10th District residents look for and expect in whoever represents them?
That someone should be committed to real reform, direct constituent inclusion in decision making, and who is not a tool of developers, labor and corporate fat cats. The someone they select should not be able to glide into the seat based on name and longevity in a past elected post. The days of entitlement and coronation of a name candidate must and should be long past.
That’s not fair. That’s not democratic. That’s provides no chance for voters to demand transparency and accountability from their council representative.
This has been the prescription for district constituents, at best, being taken for granted; at worst neglected. There’s simply too much at stake for L.A. residents to be blasé, complacent and indifferent to their present and future, especially when they have a real chance to be effective.
The L.A City Council members rank among the most powerful local officials in the nation. One city council district has the size and population that nearly matches that of a couple of smaller U.S. states. City council persons routinely make decisions, often behind closed doors, which affect the lives of millions of persons.
They have been raked over the coals deservedly for their behind closed doors deals on contracts, services and vital spending measures, with little disclosure or need to make any public disclosure. City Council sessions are filled with perfunctory ceremonial, often self-congratulatory, banter and commendations. Again, the hard stuff is done behind closed doors.
This is a big reason legions of residents of the 10th District and other council districts scratch their heads in puzzlement whenever they are asked just what exactly do the council members do? The price a City Council candidate should pay for voter support is that they give hard answers to the tough questions that 10th District residents, stakeholders and public interest groups must and should ask them. No platitudes, no canned lines, no stock phrases, or pithy sound bites, but specifics on what the 10th District representative will do on the big-ticket issues that face the district.
The need is for a big, bold, sweeping overhaul of the way L.A. city politicians do taxpayer business. They should pledge to fight for that.
That means transparency, accountability and an end to back-room, sweetheart deals with developers and special interest groups that have terribly marred city government.
The 10th District representative should pledge to an open public window on all executive meetings, deliberations and decision making, especially the awarding of all contracts. He or she should pledge to conduct independent public audits and immediate public disclosure of every cent of the billions of dollars the City Council authorizes and spends on projects in the city. That includes taxpayer dollars spent on all services, projects and materials.
The 10th City Council District’s empty seat offers residents the rare opportunity to send a strong message that they want and demand their city council member fully back open, clean, transparent city government. And they will hold them accountable for that. The first order of business, though, is to ensure the 10th District is represented and represented now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is on classical music. He hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.