September 9, 2009

I was on vacation for several weeks in August and have spent the past few days catching up on the local news that the International Herald Tribune didn’t cover.  It was in that process that I discovered the sad news that the Autry National Center, one of this city’s jewels, has decided to shelve its plans for a renovation and expansion of its facilities.

The $175 million dollar project would have nearly doubled the size of the facility and continued the trajectory of the Autry into being a world class site for the viewing and study of Native American art and artifacts. Besides the cultural and artistic implications of the renovation, the renovation would have created in excess of 1,000 jobs in an economy where every single job matters.

This seemed as close to a “no brainer” as there is in the world of municipal politics—artifacts that can’t be displayed at the Autry’s Southwest Museum would be preserved and displayed in the newly renovated and expanded facility, the neighbors, the Native American community leadership and Griffith Park advocates all agreed. Unfortunately, in the byzantine world of Los Angeles politics there are no “no brainers.”

City Councilman Jose Huizar, utilizing the perks of power and the ability of a councilman to erect roadblocks to progress without ever having to himself lead and create, derailed the project.

In a blatant attempt to extract concessions for the Southwest Museum located in his district, a museum now run by the Autry but long ignored and neglected by its neighbors, he placed excessive demands on the Autry—itself a non-profit that has been buffeted by the economy. He insisted on its pledge to support the Southwest in perpetuity as a museum—a commitment few responsible corporate boards, let alone non-profits, would, could, or should ever make.

When the Autry finally said that enough was enough and it was shelving the project, Huizar—in Casablanca-like innocence—-said the decision caught him “by surprise.” One wonders how far he thought he could push before it would be too much for the Autry to bear. Now, he and his colleagues have no one to squeeze to gain the revenues they hunger to disburse.

This sad tale makes transparently clear what many have seen developing, a troubling vacuum in leadership that speaks for the benefit of the city as a whole. Each of the council members have fiefdoms over which they rule, but strikingly absent is a voice speaking out for what is good for the larger city beyond the narrow confines of a single district.

It takes leadership with guts to assert itself and simply state the obvious and the necessary—-renovating a well run facility that will give hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to view unique artifacts trumps the complaints of neighbors of an ignored and run down 100 year old building which has not garnered much attention or concern for decades.

Would that we had that kind of leadership in this city—-instead, we have bad decisions, bad policy and as a result everyone loses.

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