My day begins with an 8 a.m. breakfast in my City Hall office, with a group of builders and developers who are working with me to discuss a policy of inclusionary housing. Inclusionary housing is the idea that a small percentage of any new housing constructed should be set aside for affordable or “workforce” housing. Los Angeles needs to build about 8,000 units of housing each year just to keep up with population growth, and we are not yet hitting that mark. (Los Angeles is growing at the rate of cities like Cairo and Calcutta, not New York or London. And only one-third of that growth is expected to be from immigrants or migrants from other parts of the United States; mostly, we have a young population that will soon be having kids.)
Families who cannot find housing are cramming together in one-bedroom apartments, “granny flats,” garages, public storage units, and other unsafe or inadequate accommodations. Many good minds are struggling to craft a policy that would help build more housing, preserve the character of our historic neighborhoods, and not put the financial burden of building more workforce housing solely on builders and developers. We have 90 days to see if we can find something that housing advocates, neighborhood councils, and the development community can all agree on. If, in 90 days, we cannot come up with a plan that everyone supports, we will have to move forward separately.
Around 9:45, a colleague calls me; he is on the way back from a funeral for an 11-year-old boy who was shot in the chest over the weekend. A teenage relative of the boy has been arrested. My colleague is clearly shaken, but needs to discuss an economic development project in his district that tomorrow will come through the committee that I chair. We share a few minutes on the phone.
At 10, I run downstairs to council chambers. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday are “council days,” during which the 15 members of the L.A. City Council meet from 10 a.m. until about 1 p.m. for our regularly scheduled meeting. The shortest City Council meeting I have been part of finished at 11:05 a.m.; the longest finished after 6.m.
One of the things that I like about local government in California is that the public is allowed to participate in the process directly. Unlike the state legislature and the U.S. Congress, where the public can only watch the proceedings, anyone can speak on any topic at the City Council meetings, during what is called “public comment.”
We normally take public comment at the beginning of the meeting. For months, a group of mostly Latino farmers have shown up at least once a week trying to save a 14-acre community garden in South Los Angeles. We also regularly hear from Jim McQuiston: a retiree, Hollywood community activist, budget maven, and constituent of mine. Nearly every day, Jim’s wife, Dorothy, drops him off in front of City Hall. In his spare time, Jim scours our arcane financial sheets and presents us with all kinds of interesting and overlooked nuggets. Then we have regular Sylvia Lynne Hawkins, a middle-aged woman whose tirades of impassioned non sequiturs might be characterized as “colorful.” In fact, she’s even threatened to run for office once or twice. Today she accuses George Bush of stealing her credit card. I don’t think she is referring to deficit spending, either.
After public comment, we take up the items on the agenda. This council meeting has 51 items that we discuss or vote on. They include the confirmation hearing of a new police commissioner, approval of new streets and streetlights, the declaration of Croatian Independence Day as a special event in the city, backing of a federal bill that would allow Americans to buy drugs from Canada, a discussion of overtime pay for firefighters, an increase in our sanitation equipment charge (still among the cheapest of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County), four reward motions for murders (including one for the case of a 16-year-old victim) and $7 million in legal settlements, many of which are the ongoing legacy of the LAPD Rampart corruption scandal.
After council, I race over to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new Frank Gehry-designed steel home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I join a press conference to celebrate the return of General Kyd, a $3.5 million Stradivarius cello that was stolen from the porch of the home of the Philharmonic’s principal cellist on April 25. The cello was taken in Los Feliz, a neighborhood a bit north of my council district, but was discovered in Silver Lake, a neighborhood I represent. The woman who found it next to a trash dumpster initially took it to her cabinetmaker boyfriend to see if he could fix the crack in it. If it was unfixable, she told him that they should make it into a CD holder.
Peter Stumpf, the principal cellist, says, “I’m just incredibly relieved … that the cello has been returned. It’s been an enormous weight on me the past three weeks.” No doubt. A repair technician, Robert Cauer, tells us that it can be restored to its former condition and sound.
The detective working the case, Don Hyrcyk, tells me he can’t wait to get out of the suit he has donned for the press conference and back into his work clothes.
My afternoon includes our weekly legislative staff meeting over lunch, a briefing by city staff for tomorrow’s meeting of the housing, community, and economic development committee, and returning calls—about 20 from the last few days. I also get a few calls lobbying for the purchase of a new building (a downtown high-rise to house city departments) by the city that we will be voting on tomorrow. Late in the afternoon, we celebrate the birthday of our office manager, Sally.
I have a rare night off, so after work I head home and walk over to Elysian Heights Elementary School, two blocks from my house. Elysian Heights used to be one of the worst-performing schools in the state, but for the last few years, the school district, parents, and the city have worked together to improve the school. Last year, for the second year in a row, the test scores improved at the highest rate in the state.
City funding has helped the Elysian Heights stay open after classes let out, which provides the neighborhood with community and recreational space. Steve, a friend who lives in the neighborhood, meets me on the blacktop to play some basketball. The baskets are 10 feet high, with giant and very forgiving backboards. A couple of kids from the neighborhood start playing with a kickball at another hoop, and we invite them to join us instead. They are young, fifth-graders, so we split them up: Carlos plays on Steve’s team and Matthew joins me. We play two games of two-on-two and one game of H-O-R-S-E. Matthew’s third-grade brother, Justin, who can’t quite throw a ball up to the basket yet, watches from the sidelines.
Talking to Carlos, I learn that his father also works at City Hall. I realize that Carlos Jr. is the son of a janitor I know, Carlos Sr., who has told me before that he lives in the neighborhood. I have an extra basketball at home, so I give Carlos my ball and walk home to dinner.