A National Unity Government for L.A.

The more time I spend trailing the Los Angeles mayoral candidates, the more I find myself musing about rehabilitating the commissariat as a form of government. Or, failing such "Red Dawn"/"Red Alert" scenarios, perhaps we might seek something akin to the national unity administration now under contemplation in Israel. I say this not just to be provocative — well not only. It just strikes me as a huge waste of precious talent, integrity and commitment to be forced by a winner-takes-all electoral system to have to pick just one of these outstanding people for mayor while jettisoning the others.

How very novel to feel this way about an impending election, considering the impulse to hold one’s nose that attended the major elections we’ve experienced since the summer in Canada, the U.S. and, most recently, Israel. I’m almost sorry that, as a permanent resident and faithful taxpayer, I do not have the right to vote.

The current mayoral dog-and-pony show wended its way to Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino this week for what the candidates now purport to be only the 27th (and not, as I reported last week, the 40th) of some 80 prospective face-offs. Trailing after them, I found myself deeply moved (as often I am) by Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s deft assessment of the unusual embarrassment of electoral riches facing us.

"The people who are with us this evening," he intoned, "are men and women who have chosen a career of service to the community. They know that there are no civilizations without cities, and they know that it is their task to see to it that cities remain civilized. For as it is said, ‘Crave for the well-being of the city, because without just governance, a man will swallow up his neighbor.’"

There was certainly no danger of such in this crowd, not least because it is the esteemed rabbi’s enlightened custom that participants who may not be properly introduced begin programs of this nature by embracing those on one’s immediate left and right for a vigorous round of "Hineh Ma Tov." Having made the acquaintance of a fellow Montreal expatriate in this fashion, I recommend this most Californian practice, and would ask the candidates to consider adopting it for future City Council meetings. I would suggest this for the Knesset as well, but I also think of myself as a realist.

In many respects, as I have noted, the candidates for the April election and June runoff share a common sense of the ills that plague this city. In addition, they seem to agree, in a broad sense, on those measures necessary to remedy them. Judging the candidates by their word, no matter who is elected, we can expect renewed emphasis on establishing neighborhood councils, demands for greater personal accountability by city department heads (including the police chief), common-sense solutions to pressing traffic and noise problems, and sustained efforts to improve the school system.

Last week, some may recall, I asked why the candidates for mayor, whose powers have traditionally been restricted to matters of budget, appointing commissioners and exercising veto privileges, spend as much time as they do calling for educational reform. The answer, I learned from State Controller Kathleen Connell and Councilman Joel Wachs, rests in the potential efficacy of the mayor’s office as a bully pulpit.

Mayor Riordon succeeded in placing school reform on the municipal agenda. The other candidates, with almost no exceptions, say they will do whatever they can to maintain this momentum. The result could be a spate of new charter schools, greater parental oversight of teachers and principals, widespread after-school and pre-kindergarten programs, and if real-estate broker and current Parks and Recreation Commissioner Steve Soboroff has his way, the eventual replacement of L.A. Unified by neighborhood school districts.

In addition, the candidates appear to share a sense that while the police department must be held accountable for Rampart, the city’s first priority must be to bolster sagging morale, stem the loss of personnel, and reverse a rising crime rate and attendant decline in arrests.

Why, asks Antonio Villaraigosa, were 68 line officers implicated in the Rampart abuses, but not a single captain, commander or deputy chief? Why, added Wachs, was Chief Parks, who already makes a quarter-million dollars a year, secretly awarded a merit raise of $30,000? How long, asked Soboroff, can we retain a police chief when 85 percent of the force is unhappy with their work, leadership and conditions of employment?

The remedy for this set of ailments, they all attest, lies in establishing greater accountability at the top; fairer disciplinary procedures at the bottom; increased civilian oversight; emphasis on community policing; inducements for police to reside within city limits; flexible work schedules; pensions in line with those of comparable sectors; and most of all, a police chief committed to genuine reform.

If the candidates differ, they do so most glaringly in matters of style. And style, as Connell observed, is an integral component of any municipal administration.

Villaraigosa stresses the need for consensus, for bringing a disparate and polarized population together around common goals and visions. Soboroff wants less talk and more action, preferably the kind that costs nothing but makes for greater efficiency. He is a real-estate broker, and his thing is "closing." Connell emphasizes her experience running a major governmental enterprise, and her successes in holding large and unwieldy institutions to account. Wachs will continue to push for greater transparency in government, and an end to City Hall’s pandering to special interests.

They are all serious in their intent, and I believe each of them, as I think did most in attendance that evening. No, I did not conduct an exit poll to make that call. It was enough to discern the only discordant note of the evening, when Soboroff implied that his rivals were motivated by the kind of job seeking triggered by term limits. This crowd wouldn’t have it. Indeed, there was some hissing. But it virtually kvelled when Wachs recounted how his own parents, who once belonged to VBS, had labored 29 years before to help him gain office.

"Some of you remember how my mother ran the headquarters, because we only had $24,000 to campaign with, and how my father stood in front of Gelson’s and the markets handing out cards that said ‘Vote for my son Joel.’ When the campaign was over, the late Art Seidenbaum did a half-hour special on KCET, not about me, but about the role my mother and father played in the election.

"When it was done — and I’ll never forget this — they asked my father and mother, ‘What do you want out of all this?’ And my father said, ‘I want he should be a good boy.’"

He is. They are all good people. And we are blessed for it.