By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
At first glance, the loud calls by much of the media, local political analysts and key Los Angeles City Council members for expanding the City Council seem not only reasonable, but long overdue.
The 15-member L.A. City Council has remained unchanged for more than a century. In the meantime, the city’s population now numbers more than four million.
Purely from a numbers standpoint, as the expansion proponents repeatedly point out, Los Angeles has one council person representing districts that are as big as some medium-sized cities. When you toss in comparisons to New York and Chicago, which have double and triple the number of representatives on their city councils, the case for adding more people to the City Council seems a slam dunk.
It is not. Simply putting more bodies on a city council before, and that is the operative word “before,” there is a massive, sweeping and deeply structural reform of the Los Angeles City Council simply is a meaningless feel-good ploy that gives the appearance of reform without changing anything except the numbers.
The proponents of city council expansion endlessly point to the far bigger numbers on the New York and Chicago city councils to bolster their case that this is what the Los Angeles City Council should look like.
However, they do not go the requisite step further and tell whether just having more bodies on those cities’ councils has improved the quality of city services, increased political responsiveness to constituents, and most importantly, made city government more open, accountable and free of the taint of corporate and special interest lobbying and influence.
The only thing they offer as a plus is that more bodies increase diversity by putting more Blacks, Hispanics and women on the Chicago and New York councils. That is not enough.
More bodies on a city council, no matter the color or gender, does not automatically mean more transparency and accountability. There is no reason to think this would be any different with more bodies warming more City Council seats in Los Angeles.
The only reason that some Los Angeles City Council members ever mention expansion is because of the battering the council took for a period after a leaked tape caught three council members spouting racist, derogatory cracks or being silent about them. The furor over the tape ignited non-stop demonstrations and finger-pointing by the local and national media and state and national officials at the L.A. City Council for racism, corruption, dysfunctionality and its chronic thumb-the-nose-at-the-public decision-making.
So, council members to quell the rage quickly latched onto the idea of expansion. It smacked of a time-buying ploy to ride out the storm. When the public rage passed, the council likely will quickly retreat to doing its business as usual.
The business as usual is just more secrecy, more closed-door decision-making and minimal to no accountability to residents and stakeholders.
The charade of reform is glaring because there is already a wide body of substantive reforms proposals, measures and blueprints for legislative change that have been on the table for local governmental bodies to adopt. Most of the reform measures have been routinely ignored by local government bodies. That certainly includes the Los Angeles City Council.
The major one involves transparency on spending. Los Angeles residents pay tens of millions in taxes, fees and varied assessments yearly. The City Council is tasked with budgeting and spending that money.
How many taxpayers know how and on what the money is spent? How many know how decisions are made on the spending?
The answers are deliberately shrouded in a cloak of mystery and invisibility to the public. The cloak remains even tighter drawn when some citizen groups demand answers.
The L. A. City Council has long been ripe pickings for money from lobbyists, corporate developers and labor bureaucrats. They have the direct pipeline to the council committee heads and members. They are the ones who are counted on to provide the big dollars for reelection campaigns.
It is a cozy, chummy, scratch-my-back relationship that smacks of self-aggrandizement and political insularity.
There is zero public input or knowledge of these decisions until after the fact — if then. Executive sessions are the favorite time-worn ploy the City Council uses to maintain opaqueness, mystery, secrecy and self-aggrandizement.
The tape that caught three City Council members making digs about Blacks and Latinos and concocting schemes about redistricting was shocking only because this was one of the rare times that the public had an open window on the secret machinations of politicians. However, the secrecy that is embedded in the way the council has always done business is routine.
Like all politicians, L.A. politicians pay much lip service to accountability. And, as with transparency, few really mean it, let alone welcome it.
Merely putting more warm bodies on the city council means nothing. It does not strike to the heart of making the council truly a body that embodies in spirit and fact true representative government.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is “The Midterms: Why They Are So Important and So Ignored” (Middle Passage Press). He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.