As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

LA City Elections: Promise, Pitfalls, Potential For Change

Today is Election Day in LA City, and given the turnouts we've seen in other off-year elections, as well as the fact that the mayoral race, the biggest ticket on the ballot, is basically a coronation, turnout is likely to be very small, save for the wide-open 5th District City Council race, which is really anybody's to win (very unusual in LA politics). The expectation is about 15%. Despite the fact that Los Angeles actually has a fairly rich culture of political activism, from the Latino student sit-ins to recent Prop. 8 actions and hundreds more, the recent history is that city elections do not draw much of a crowd. That's a shame in a city that's larger than the total populations of many states, and it reduces accountability on the elected officials.

I don't live in Los Angeles, but I work here, and I have a conflicted view about the way the city runs. I think if every resident were forced to watch The Garden, the Oscar-nominated documentary about South Los Angeles residents being forcibly evicted from a community garden, nobody would vote for anyone currently on the City Council, least of all Mayor Villaraigosa. The film, almost a real-life version of The Wire, revealed a city government of backroom deals and power-brokers able to make their voices heard well beyond the needs of the community. You can add to that the rare bit of journalism from the LA Weekly about the City Council, and you could be convinced that the lack of accountability from the electoral process has bred a toxic atmosphere at City Hall. The likely consolidation of power that would result from Villaraigosa allies in the city attorney and city controller offices would lead you even closer to that conclusion.

Yet among the morass, there are some very earnest public servants trying to manage a very unwieldy city, with a host of unique problems and challenges that would vex any lawmaking body on Earth. Set aside this year's $1 billion dollar budget; the problems of immigration, gang violence, income inequality, traffic, health care, air pollution, education, and much, much more all converge in this city. From 10,000 feet these problems look intractable, and yet there are gradual, slow steps toward mitigation, and even areas where Los Angeles is a national model. The sales tax receipts from Measure R may finally bring sustainable transit infrastructure to fruition for more than a handful of the city's residents. The Green Trucks Program is an innovative, first-in-the-nation effort to bring labor and environmental groups together to reduce pollution, create living wage jobs and help save the planet. And the city's Green Jobs Training program is seen as so potentially game-changing that it was used as a model in a White House staff report from their Middle Class Task Force:

The City of Los Angeles has undertaken or is in the midst of undertaking several initiatives that, together, begin to constitute a model for how cities can maximize the benefits of “going green” for working families. As is often the case, necessity was the mother of policy innovation. A few years ago, the city faced a number of stark challenges including: a state renewable energy mandate (a statewide “portfolio standard” requiring 20% renewable energy by 2017) and a state cap on greenhouse gas emissions; an impending shortage of skilled construction workers; entrenched poverty and joblessness in many low-income neighborhoods; and toxic levels of diesel pollution that were imposing huge health costs and blocking the growth of the nation’s largest port complex.

In the past year, Los Angeles has adopted a comprehensive approach to redevelopment which will ensure that city-subsidized development projects are built green and serve as vehicles for moving low-income residents into middle-class construction careers. The Port of Los Angeles has also begun to implement a comprehensive solution to freight-related air pollution that will increase efficiency, enhance security, and improve work conditions and living standards for port truck drivers. Most important is the fact that these initiatives are being undertaken on a large scale: the city’s construction policy is expected to impact 15,000 jobs over five years while the Clean Trucks Program (discussed below) could affect as many as 16,000 port truck drivers.

In 2008, the City of Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) adopted a landmark policy designed to protect the environment, safeguard the interests of taxpayers, and ensure that city-supported projects create good construction jobs and career pathways for city residents. The Construction Careers and Project Stabilization Policy establishes minimum labor standards and a process for avoiding labor disruptions by means of a master agreement between the CRA and local building trades unions. The policy requires participating contractors and unions to make construction job opportunities available to local residents, including individuals who face barriers to employment such as a criminal record or a limited education.

The policy is being implemented alongside a requirement that large subsidized projects meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. In this way, city leaders have begun to lay the foundations for building a green-collar construction workforce in Los Angeles. The UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education
projects that the policy will make at least 5,000 apprentice-level construction jobs available to residents of neighborhoods with high levels of unemployment over the next five years. At least 1,500 jobs are expected to go to individuals who might otherwise remain homeless, unemployed, dependent on welfare programs, or caught up in the criminal justice system. But the most important result of the Construction Careers policy will be to leverage public investments in economic development to turn short-term jobs into long-term careers in the construction industry.

I wish there was more structural accountability in Los Angeles, from the Mayor on down. I wish the city wasn't so dominated by big-city machine politics and red-letter projects that often fail to follow through on their promise. And where criticism is warranted, I'm sure to be first in line. But Los Angeles is a very complex and hard-to-pigeonhole place, and that is true of its politics as well.

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