With all of the other problems it faces, you might think that the last thing a big metropolis like Los Angeles should do is require that its city council meet less often. Think again: transforming the Los Angeles City Council from a full-time, over-staffed, and perk-filled institution to a part-time body would greatly benefit city governance. In addition to saving Angelenos millions of dollars each year, a part-time council would provide access to a more diverse field of professionals. Council candidates would not have to leave their private- or public-sector careers to serve. A part-time council would take advantage of talent and experience from outside City Hall—from people who create jobs and balance budgets on a regular basis, for instance. L.A. could use the additional real-world experience.
A part-time council is not the same as a part-time government. Part-time councils govern successfully across Los Angeles County and the nation. Of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County, only L.A.’s council is full-time. Only four of the ten largest U.S. cities have full-time councils: L.A., Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Jose. It’s telling that three of the four are in California, one of the most mismanaged states in the nation. Along with New York, the other large cities with part-time councils include Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Dallas.
With an annual salary of $179,789, members of the Los Angeles City Council are the highest paid council members in the United States, and in fact make more than an incoming member of the U.S. Senate. The part-time Washington, D.C. council ranks second, paying its members $130,538 annually. New York City’s 50 part-time council members collect $121,725 per year. Handsome salaries aren’t the only benefit of an L.A. council seat, of course. The city allocates $1.7 million annually to each of the city’s 15 council offices, and the council employs a staff of more than 300 people. Each council member also receives a car—with parking-meter immunity—and a $100,000 (minimum) taxpayer-financed annual discretionary fund.
A part-time council would discourage corruption and political empire-building. Los Angeles happens to be a hotbed for both. Often, the L.A. council serves as a kind of taxpayer-funded haven for ex-state legislators biding their time until they can run for Congress or statewide office. Council members Richard Alarcón, Paul Krekorian, Tony Cardenas, and Paul Koretz spent time in the state assembly, senate, or both; Cardenas is running for Congress. Councilman Herb Wesson is a former Assembly speaker, as is current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor has his eye on the governor’s office in 2014.
Several city departments have come under FBI investigation. At least half of the council has faced conflict-of- interest allegations. Alarcón was charged last year with 18 felonies, including perjury and voter fraud, after a 15-month probe by the district attorney concluded that he and his wife lied repeatedly about their district of residence and voter registration. The case is still pending. Mayor Villaraigosa, council president Eric Garcetti, José Huizar, Wesson, and Cardenas paid thousands of dollars in fines for improperly accepting free tickets to Hollywood events from individuals doing business with the city. Cardenas and former councilwoman Janice Hahn, who recently won a special election to replace South Bay Democrat Jane Harman in Congress, were both called out by the L.A. Weekly for their ties to a company bidding for an airport concessions contract.
The fact is, the L.A. City Council operates in a de facto part-time manner already. California Public Records Act requests show council- member attendance records filled with “excused” absences or early leaves. Council members apparently work on a “rotation” schedule, enabling them to conduct business with the bare minimum needed for a quorum while spreading the maximum time off among members. Worse, the Los Angeles Times in March revealed how council members “can hold meetings, give interviews, even grab a smoke while deciding the day’s issues,” thanks to voting software programmed automatically to “register each of the 15 lawmakers as a ‘yes’ unless members deliberately press a button to vote ‘no.’” Why should city taxpayers pay council members and their staffs millions of dollars when a computer is effectively making the decisions?
Not surprisingly, a July 2010 report by the Center for Governmental Studies found that the council votes unanimously more than 99 percent of the time. “The nearly perfect unanimous voting record of Los Angeles City Council makes it almost impossible to detect linkages between campaign contributions and council legislative decisions,” CGS researchers found. “If any relationship does exist, it is hidden behind closed doors,” they concluded.
The Los Angeles City Council clearly has lots of time on its hands. The high salaries, slush funds, bloated staffs, and attractive perks all derive from the council’s full-time status. Only an amendment to the city charter can remedy the situation, which is within voters’ power to enact. It’s time for a ballot initiative.