By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
In her first “State of the City” report, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass went big, bold and expansive when she announced an added billion dollars to the city budget to combat the homeless crisis. She also cautioned that L.A. has much work to do to right the ship on many of the crucial problems the city faces.
Bass is right. Los Angeles faces many daunting challenges and she and her office will be on the frontline and the hot seat, to tackle them.
L.A. is the nation’s second-largest city. It has a budget and an economy that surpasses that of many nations. It is the glamour capitol for entertainment, music and now sports.
It’s the gateway to the big, economically muscular China, Japan, the Pacific Rim nations and Mexico. The names of L.A. mayors are sometimes bandied about as possible presidential timber or as national administration cabinet officials.
However, beneath the glitter, glamour and prestige, there are problems, lots of them, that, as Bass acknowledged, she must grapple with. The starting point, as she has repeatedly warned, is the greatest eyesore that has defied every plan, solution, program or action to eliminate. That’s homelessness, which she has made her priority.
On any given day or night, many of L.A.’s streets, parks and freeway overpasses look like Kolkata at its worst. There have been bond measures, ramped-up spending, hotel and resident vouchers, and sheltering, ordinances banning the homeless from this or that place and police crackdowns. Yet, the battered makeshift tents and encampments that dot L.A. are everywhere.
Bass has launched some innovative programs that include bankrolling more housing, services and targeting of the worst encampments for clearance. However, more encampments continue to sprout up in every conceivable nook and cranny of the city.
It’s going to take much more to really dent the problem. The much more it will take is a mix of ramped-up approaches — strategic spending, land-use changes, housing subsidies and the expansion of support services to dent the problem.
The homeless crisis doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has a nefarious twin: virtually unchecked, high rent or lease developments that make housing and apartment affordability in L.A. a bad joke and continue to displace thousands of residents. This has a spiraling effect in swelling the homeless numbers.
Bass must zero-in on the Los Angeles City Council. She must relentlessly prod it to enact a solid land-use plan to rein in upscale development. That means taking checkbook politics out of the development process while ensuring the building and subsidizing of more affordable housing.
Next up is getting a handle on L.A.’s rampant sprawl that has turned freeways and streets into stalled parking lots for hours on end. The answers are the continued expansion of light transit, bus ways, traffic-signal coordination and synchronization, traffic flow monitors at major thoroughfares and carpooling incentives.
Then there’s the always thorny issue of police misconduct. Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore has promised in his second term to fully implement mandated reforms in this area. The trick is how to balance the ongoing fight for LAPD reform with citizens’ fear of gang and criminal violence, while continuing to push the department brass and police commission to maintain vigilance on all these issues. The operative words on this remain firm — direction, oversight and rigorous discipline.
Bass must counter the deep sense among many L.A. residents that the City Council and local government officials are knee-deep in malaise, the fog of government, and a self-serving, “it’s all about me” careerism that has often enveloped both the council and the mayor’s office. That means clamping down on special interest, deal-making cronyism inside and outside City Hall, trimming a bloated city bureaucracy and sneaky, up-front tax increases that smack of old-fashioned political pork-barreling.
Put bluntly, there must be no “for sale” sign on City Hall. A major key to ensuring the smooth, effective, resident-friendly operation of L.A. city government is tough, hard monitoring, oversight and review, and accountability of city agencies. That starts with keeping a tight rein on the performance of men and women who run these agencies.
The mayor’s job is to make the right choices in who heads these agencies to make sure that happens. In the absence of that, city agencies turn into top-heavy, bureaucratic-leaden, inert, wasteful, crony-ridden entities.
That became a major point of contention, friction, pain and anger with the Department of Water and Power and its colossal bureaucratic management, spending, waste and cronyism.
Former L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti trotted to Washington to lobby for more funding for housing, and business development in grossly underserved South and East L.A. Bass will have to do the same, becoming a vigorous advocate for the city in D.C. She’s uniquely equipped to do this from her long tenure in Congress. She knows the levers of power and has the savvy and political connections to ensure L.A. gets the best deal it can out of Washington.
Here’s the checklist, then, of challenges for Bass: a balanced, land-use plan; protection from runaway development; traffic and transit management; tough oversight over the LAPD and city agencies; ending cronyism; mismanagement bloat; effecting transparent budget spending; and keeping L.A. in the fiscal black.
We’ll watch with anxious eyes on just how much progress Bass and the city have made by the time she delivers her next “State of L.A.” report.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.