By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Six months after veteran 9th District Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price was indicted on felony embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest charges he was arraigned Jan. 8.
His attorneys challenged the charges on various grounds. They want the case tossed. That’s not likely.
District attorneys and federal prosecutors are increasingly going after local elected officials almost always on charges related to financial hanky panky.
Many though were surprised that Price would be a target. He is widely regarded as a businesslike, efficient and knowledgeable political operator.
He gets high marks for his efficient management of the various council committees he serves on and chairs. He gets equally high marks from many district residents for revitalizing businesses and securing low cost and senior housing projects for the district.
That’s where the surprise over his indictment ends. In the past decade, a parade of city L.A. City Council members have been indicted, convicted or ousted from the council on corruption charges. Two of the most recent to suffer that fate were Mark Ridley-Thomas and Jose Huizar.
Like both men, Price’s long tenure on the council made him a prime candidate for coming under public and especially legal scrutiny. The major problem that Price and the other council members who are in the public and prosecutor’s eye is their long standing borderline legal wheeling and dealing with developers.
This has virtually put a “for sale” sign at City Hall. The temptation of cutting deals with developers and then lining their pockets with money is just too enticing for some to say no to.
The brutal reality is that the council has made corruption, wasted time, dysfunctionality and plain ineffectiveness an institution. The reason for that is simple. There is no requirement or demand from the reformers for the two words and actions that would radically overhaul the way the city council or any other legislative body should do and act.
Those words are transparency and accountability by council members to those who put them in office.
Let’s take transparency first. All politicians pay lip service to it. They profess that they are transparent with their constituents.
Transparency means more than just sending out an occasional online newsletter (some do not even bother with that) or having an occasional town hall to let residents and stakeholders gripe, complain and blow off steam.
It requires total openness to the two most crucial areas of city government. The first is how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Residents pay lots of taxes and the city collects lots of revenue. The council determines how that money is spent. But how many residents and stakeholders know where the money — their money — goes?
How many residents and stakeholders are ever consulted about spending decisions? How many residents and stakeholders are even informed before or after the fact where their money goes and for what? The answer is none.
The simple requirement should be that no spending decisions be made district wide or citywide before, during and after direct consultation and input from varied stakeholders in the district. That should be mandatory.
That reform requires much more than simply focusing on the one area that gets the council members repeatedly in legal hot water. That is their cozy give away the company store, play for pay antic with big developers.
That reform strikes to the heart of democratic decision making and citizen engagement on all spending that directly affects constituents. The thing to remember is that taxpayers’ dollars, not the councils, are at stake.
One glaring example of the closed door in the dark spending of the city council, which has near mortally wounded L.A., is the never-ending surge in homelessness that makes L.A. streets look like Kolkata, India.
Now for accountability. L.A. politicians, like all politicians again pay much lip service to it. And, as with transparency, few really mean it let alone welcome it.
If that were the case, they would continually inform their constituents, residents and stakeholders on all proposals debated and discussed at every city council meeting and in committee meetings on vital public policy issues.
There would be no cozy executive sessions to which the public is totally barred from where the crucial decisions on spending and public policy are made. 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.
Price’s corruption scandal is yet another warning and message to elected officials that any allegation or hint of corruption is and should be vigorously guarded against. If not, it just reinforces the belief and sadly the reality that City Hall in far too many instances is for sale.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “The Myth of Black Capitalism (New Edition NYU Press). He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.