June 1, 2002 - From the June, 2002 issue

Ron Kaye: L.A. Daily News Fully Supports Hertzberg's Boroughs

Earlier this month, the L.A. Times ran a pair of stories critiquing its own local coverage of the debate and events relating to secession. In doing so, the Times also suggested that the L.A. Daily News not only trumpets secession, but also has a stake in the outcome of the Valley secession movement. To discuss the role of the Daily News and his opinions on secession, boroughs, and the contributions of media to public policy debates, TPR is pleased to present this interview with Ron Kaye, the managing editor of the L.A. Daily News.


Ron Kaye

Ron, the subject of how best to right size the government of the City of Los Angeles and its almost 4 million inhabitants has been a recurring story in your newspaper, the Daily News, for years. What drives your paper's interest in the issue of local governance?

It starts with the deterioration of the city and how that's come about, and questions about how to fix that. Our reporting and our editorials have focused on what's best for the city: the empowering of people in their neighborhoods to make decisions about what's good for them, to overcome the alienation that people feel, the apathy, and the historic nature of L.A.'s power structure being very narrow and protective of preserving its power.

These aren't hypothetical issues any longer because of LAFCO's recent actions and the promise of a vote in November on both the Valley and Hollywood's attempts to secede. With an up or down vote pending, help our readers understand the benefits and the virtues that would follow from Valley secession.

The first virtue is it takes you out of the enormous power of the Downtown power structure, for lack of a better name, contractors, labor unions, lobbyists, the entire political apparatus. You start with a clean slate. Nobody knows who would run for these fourteen council seats and mayor. There would be people running in districts of 100,000 rather than 250,000. It would be inherently more democratic. Depending on who steps forward and what proposals they put forward, it might be a good idea.

The paper has never supported secession and will analyze what it comes down to, presumably in October, of whether, as an institution, we genuinely believe that the San Fernando Valley, where the bulk of our readers are, would be better off with their own city.

Are there any virtues to the City of Los Angeles' present form of local government?

We said it probably 100 times or more: the greatest choice would be for L.A. to truly reform itself. They had the chance in charter reform. They now have the chance to consider a proposal of boroughs for the city. L.A. has no democratic history. Power has always been narrowly held. We've become a city of limits. We have to dramatically change and become an inclusive city, a city that empowers the community.

This is potentially the greatest city on the face of the earth. It's got a culture, a myth, a history of enormous freedom, of stardom, of technological invention. It's got the most wondrous climate. Los Angeles is great in every way but its political institutions.

You mention boroughs, Ron. What is it about this concept of boroughs that appeals with your concerns about what's needed to best govern the megalopolis we call Los Angeles?

If you brought districts down to the level of 75,000 people or so, a person could literally walk their neighborhood and round up support. They could have a direct say. The people who play racial politics in this town focus on one or two population groups, but in fact, there are 85 or 100 different languages spoken in town. There are enormously diverse ethnic groups, all of whom need some kind of a say to present their culture, their values.

We've been at war against the middle-class in this town for a generation, yet the middle class is what the poor people aspire to, and should be supported in getting to. We're becoming a city of rich and poor, and we have to reverse that to build the kind of city that has real health, becomes safer, and has better schools.

What's the role of the press, especially the print media, in covering the issue of governance in Los Angeles? New York City now has five competitive newspapers competing to cover its local news. Los Angeles, some would argue, has but one and a half, because the Daily News doesn't attempt to cover all 465 square miles of the City of Los Angeles. In the absence of a vibrant competitive press, can you really have participatory local government?

I think it's a real issue. I've mostly spent my career in very competitive situations. What happens in a competitive situation is that journalists get an enormous amount of political room to tell stories, what I call "corporate monopoly journalism," which dominates almost all of America's big cities. [Without competition] you get a very tepid voice; the bean counters control the product. There's no reason to put your neck out there and stand for something.

Your criticism of the Daily News is fundamentally that we've stood for something, right or wrong, whether you like it or not. Our audience is based in the Valley. We've been standing up for the Valley. We've been fighting for it to be a better place, to have power in this community. You can't do that, except in a competitive situation.

Otherwise, you wind up like the LA Times, which hardly stands for anything about Los Angeles. It's a global picture. It's got its qualities that are virtuous and intelligent. But it certainly doesn't stand for the best interests of the city of Los Angeles, and frankly, it never has.

Ron, let's return to the right sizing of government. How do we craft a local governmental structure with built-in constructive, democratic tension between the whole (metropolitan) and the parts (neighborhoods) so that you have both sets of interests constantly in play in the councils of legislative decision-making and when the allocation of scarce public resources is being decided?

I'm not the details guy, but it certainly is not by having 150 or 200 advisory neighborhood councils, that are powerlessness and fragmented. Frankly, I've always said that NIMBY-ism is a sane response to a government that's trampling on your interests.

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The answer to that is if people have a say, an ability to protect themselves, their communities, their values and their interests, they are more likely to be giving and sharing and respectful of the other guys.

I was talking to the City Manager in Glendale, describing a fundamental cultural transformation that's taking place, where they're getting the different communities to talk to one another. They're able to bring them to the table. It's a very racially diverse community today. And they can talk about raising business taxes in collaboration with the business community by showing how they can target the money toward the poorest neighborhoods, and begin to solve their problems. As he said, the city is only as healthy as its poorest and worst neighborhoods.

Continuing with the theme of how best to create constructive political tension in local government, how do you see boroughs helping Los Angeles balance/manage better the issues which have no neighborhood constituency – regional economic catalysts like airports and harbors, waste management, water quality, air quality, homeless shelters, and telecommunications – conflicting with neighborhood quality of life concerns?

You have to separate out the issues that are really citywide. Certainly basic police and fire services, your water and power, a large number of issues have citywide application. By leaving them at the city-metro level and turning over street paving, land use, tree trimming, and basic services that directly touch the public, local groups have a better understanding of the needs of whether they need more or less of this or that.

Whether the priorities are different in neighborhoods, I think land use is the most basic and most critical. This community has benefited from good land use decisions that enhanced the value of their neighborhoods. They should benefit from the wealth and be able to put it back into their communities.

At the same time, by creating those local structures, you create political structures that L.A. lacks. We've created fifteen kinds of fiefdoms without any infrastructure beneath that. There's no political process. If those council members were replaced by several borough council members and each grew out of organizations that began to flourish in their communities, you would have the answer to the problem: L.A. in particular lacks a political culture at its grassroots level.

Homeowners groups stand for entire communities, no matter how many members they actually have participating. It should be broader than that. Even neighborhood councils in a borough system would have some meaning. They would probably be the place from which borough people were elected.

Ron, outside the Valley, few realize how much interest you have in public education. What do you envision to be the natural linkages between the city form of government you're advocating, boroughs, and the LAUSD?

The ideal would be that the borough system would apply both to the schools and to the city as a whole. LAUSD, in its latest manifestation, has come up with eleven mini-districts. But there's no public participation. There's no system by which I have a say in my local schools. The teachers, principal, and staff are pretty much in control and unresponsive to parents' complaints, by and large.

If you fragment power over local control of schools in a way that brings people in, lets them have a say, lets them make policy, you engender participation, volunteerism and real support for the schools, as opposed to an alienation where the stakeholders are the teachers and administrators and not the parents who have the children and who are, in fact, paying the bills.

Los Angeles' local newspapers, including the Daily News, have not done an exceptional job in putting resources into covering state government. The electronic media is even worse. Yet the State's budget is a $100 billion and, post-Prop 13, has tremendous influence over local government revenue and authority. What's the nexus, in your opinion, between right sizing local government and state government?

That's a great question. We've episodically had people up there because we don't pay as well as others. If they're any good, bigger, richer institutions buy them up. California politics are terribly covered. Policy decisions are being made quite clearly by who pays the most money, who lobbies the most, who contributes to campaigns the most. It goes on with almost no particularity, unless some scandal breaks out, like with the Insurance Commissioner.

The disservice, then, to local institutions, is that they wind up doing business in a very corrupted atmosphere, which is the same problem in Los Angeles-you have to do business with the system. You don't have honest political and policy debates about what's good for the state or the community.

Last question. The Speaker Emeritus of the California Legislature, Valley Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, is promoting the idea of boroughs, along with City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, as the best solution to governing Los Angeles in the twenty-first century. Who else is part of the mix of people that you believe have to step forward and provide leadership if governmental reform is to happen on your watch at the Daily News?

There are a lot of good, earnest and knowledgeable people that have participated in and around City Hall for a very long time, and who have actually tried to make this a better city. As Hertzberg and Greuel and others step forward, for every person who's interested in a better L.A., this is the time. Power is on the table. The political environment is such that real change is possible and in a hurry. And I think that's the answer to secession: dramatic reform of the city political structure.

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