February 28, 1993 - From the February, 1993 issue

L.A. Mayoral Race: Non-Candidate Yaroslavsky Focuses the Debate

As part of The Planning Report’s continuing coverage of the planning issues facing the next Mayor of Los Angeles, we present this month insights on the key issues of the race from a prominent non-candidate, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. 


"Without charter reform, the next mayor will be largely ceremonial, just like the last 100 years of Los Angeles mayors. Not everyone will be like Tom Bradley…"

As the chairman of the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee and someone who decided not to run for Mayor of Los Angeles, you’re one of the best persons to identify the key issues facing the next Mayor. Please do so.

There are two initial issues. The first is that the next Mayor must assert himself or herself as the leader for the whole city. The city has been leaderless for some time. We’ll have had a lame duck Mayor for nine months. People aren’t viewing the field in a favorable light — it’s almost a mockery with 52 candidates running with no one really emerging yet. 

But that person, once he or she emerges, will have to move quickly to establish a capacity to bring the city together and address the whole array of problems facing the city. It’s what Willie Williams did when he became chief of police: making himself available and reaching out to all communities.

The second issue — a little less ephemeral — is that the next Mayor will walk in here on July 1st to a several hundred million dollar budget deficit. Thanks to Governor Wilson’s proposed budget, we’re facing on July 1st another $150 million to $300 million shortfall on top of the $150 million we’re already expecting from the recession. That is a monstrosity of a problem that very few people realize and even fewer people know how to solve. 

Translate what the city’s budgetary shortfall means for the readers of The Planning Report.

A best case scenario for the city and state is a combined shortfall of $300 million. If we close the libraries, the Recreation and Parks Department, the Planning Department, the Transportation Department, and Building and Safety, we would not make up $300 million. It’s more than a third of the budget of the Police Department: it’s almost the entire budget of the Fire Department. The General Funded portion of our budget is two and half billion dollars, so $300 million is 15% of that fund. And that's 15% on top of a series of years when we’ve cut back and downsized the city. 

Simply stated, there are not enough taxes in the world to make up a $300 million deficit; nor are there enough budget cutbacks to close a $300 million hole without drastically affecting municipal services, including emergency services. In fact, I don’t believe the conventional wisdom that raising some taxes and making some cuts will work. It won’t, which is why John Ferraro appointed an ad hoc committee, which I will chair, to look at the broader structural solutions to our seemingly perpetual budget deficits. 

What departments are we prepared to close? What services are we prepared to consolidate? How far are we prepared to go toward mandatory or voluntary work furloughs? How many employees are we prepared to lay off, and which ones? These are the kinds of questions we’re going to have to answer in the spring. The next Mayor will have a much more difficult task on July 1st. Each time you make cuts, it is exponentially more difficult than the previous time. 

Many of the readers of The Planning Report have spent their professional lives engaged in economic development. Are you hearing any strategies from the candidates to grow the economic base of the city so that we can maintain some of these public services?

The future of this city is largely dependent on whether the pie grows. If the economic engine of America continues to be in reverse as it is in Los Angeles, then there’s no hope for any of the things we’re talking about. You won’t have to worry about term limits because we’ll all be out of office by choice. Our future rests with the future of the new administration and a new national domestic economic strategy.

Are you saying the city and region have a limited capacity to deal with this problem?

I think it’s very unlikely that the city, county and region can deal with it on its own. It may be the politically correct thing for a mayoral candidate to say we can address it here, but let’s be frank. We’ve got a banking crisis, a capital formation crisis, and a high unemployment rate exacerbated by decisions from Washington on the defense industry. This is not something that can be solved locally.

Making us the rail transit production capital is a great idea, but the capital won’t come as a result of any decisions we can make locally. So our future is tied to the Clinton administration’s success. If they succeed, we succeed, or have the ability to succeed. If they don’t succeed, we have long, dark years ahead of us. 

What’s the role of state government in growing our local and regional economy? 

The state has to listen carefully to the things that the investment and business communities say are driving them out of the state. There’s nothing inconsistent about being a social liberal and a friend of workers while doing something about workers compensation fraud. I know people who’ve taken their business out of state because of this issue. 

At the local level, we have to deal with a slow, molasses-like permitting process. The city can no longer take itself for granted. Los Angeles is now in competition with every other city in the Southwest — Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City. In the old days, when I first became a Council member, we could do no wrong. Today, the city has to compete and have an edge to it that we never had before. 

The next Mayor has to inculcate that, especially into the people in his employ at City Hall. People at the building counter or the planning counter have to understand that their jobs may be at stake — they could get laid off — if they don’t work hard and efficiently. 

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In the upcoming mayoral forums, the issues that should dominate discussion are growth management, planning, and transportation. How would you want the candidates to address these questions? 

Growth management will always be an issue in this city, especially in certain areas. The economy was always on automatic pilot, but now we’re not. If you look at my district, if Twentieth Century Fox Studios had come in five or six years ago asking to change their zoning back to studio use, there would have been almost a knee-jerk response against it. Now, the city’s poised to approve some form of expansion plan and it has broad-based community support. 

I think that tells you something: that is, we can no longer afford to couch each issue as jobs vs. quality of life. We can’t afford to overly simplify in that way. The challenge now is to get jobs and a quality of life, to get expansion of manufacturing facilities and a quality of life, to attract investment into the inner city and elsewhere without destroying the quality of life. In that regard, the business community and investment community has to understand that the city will be open for business, but not at any cost. 

The next mayor will also appoint four members of the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). How important are these appointments? 

I think the MTA will be the most important regional agency around, with the possible exception of the AQMD. It’s the only agency with money to spend. It’s spending money on a transportation infrastructure that’s sorely lacking in the city. Obviously, the routing decisions and investment decisions have monumental implications from which communities of the city will benefit. The most important appointments the Mayor can make will be to the MTA: no one else has four appointments, everyone else has one. 

I’d like to hear some of the candidates for Mayor talk about their vision for transportation, in addition to things over which the Mayor has little control, such as immigration and school breakup. They will have a lot to say over whether the subway goes down Wilshire or San Vicente; whether it goes down Chandler or over the Ventura Freeway; and whether there’s a route to Pasadena or to Orange County. 

Does the city need charter reform to be governable in 1993? If so, what kind of charter reform? Can you give some counsel to our readers and the candidates on this issue? 

I think one of the most important things we can do in the next several years is to propose a new charter for the voters to vote on. The City Charter is antiquated: it is a 65-year document that was cumbersome in 1926 and counterproductive in 1993. It is not a document that any academic, politician, or thinker would craft to run a city of three and a half million people today. 

By the time I leave here, I want a charter that will serve the needs of this city for years to come. This may sound strange for a Council member to say, but the chief executive of this city, the Mayor, has too little power and authority. We could get away with that when the city was economically on the rise and on automatic pilot. But the city is not on automatic pilot any longer. The nose of the plane is tilted downward and there’s a lot of flak taking us down, and someone has to right the ship. 

The Mayor does not truly have the power to right this ship. The Council is 15 members: no legislative body of any size can regularly develop full consensus on important issues. The Council cannot be expected to be both an executive and legislative body. We should be a legislative and deliberative body, and the Mayor should be the Chief Executive. 

If you want the Mayor lo be held accountable for the direction of this city, he or she has to have the power and responsibility. That will be a tall order because charter reform has to proceed through the Council and there are 14 other members of the Council who have to be convinced that it’s in their collective interest to create a different balance of power — to create the power a president, a governor has to act and break through governmental gridlock. 

Without charter reform, the next mayor will be largely ceremonial, just like the last 100 years of Los Angeles mayors. Not everyone will be like Tom Bradley, whose persona and style made him a unique authority figure, especially in his early years. That happens once in a lifetime, and there’s no one today with that stature. You have to create a charter that vests authority in someone, and then hold that someone responsible for his or her job performance. 

Upon what issue do you hope the media will focus in this mayoral campaign? 

I’d like to hear the press force the candidates to address a very simple question which is within their jurisdiction and which they’ll be forced to deal with once they get here: If you walk into the Mayor’s office July 1st and face a $200 million shortfall, how do you propose to close the gap? Don’t tell me about illegal immigrants and don’t tell me about breaking up the school district. 

The one thing you will have the power to do is to submit a proposal on how to close that gap. Which taxes are you going to raise? Which departments are you going to close? How do you propose to do it? 

The way things are going now, the next Mayor may go through this whole campaign without ever having to answer the one question he will have to answer once he becomes Mayor. The voters should not be cheated out of these answers.

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