The last couple of weeks have been pretty intense. The coronavirus is spreading in the US and a national emergency has now been declared. At the same time stock markets, in the US and around the world, have been plunging, with fears of another recession on the minds of many.
LA County declared a state of emergency earlier this month, and as concern has grown over the spread of the virus, local and State officials have been weighing their options, trying to figure out how to respond rationally without creating a panic. Last week the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to close all schools. LA City Hall and LA County Courts are either postponing hearings or trying to find alternatives that don’t involve bringing lots of people together in a single room.
And in addition to all that, on Monday it was announced that former LA City Councilmember Mitch Englander was being charged by the Justice Department with obstructing a corruption investigation. The Feds have accused Englander of witness tampering and making false statements. While Englander stepped down from the City Council a while ago, this case could well have implications for people currently serving at City Hall.
So it’s been a wild couple of weeks. I have to say I feel kind of overwhelmed and confused. Of course the immediate concern is the coronavirus. I’ve been checking the LA County Department of Health web site every day. On Sunday they had identified 53 cases within the County, and officials were telling us to avoid non-essential travel and to stay away from public gatherings. Today the number is 144, and theatres, bars and gyms have been ordered to close. Restaurants can stay open, but only for take-out orders. As the news gets worse, you can feel a general sense of anxiety in the air.
On Saturday I was out of the house for most of the afternoon, and I’m realizing now that’s the last time I’ll be roaming around the city for a while. At that point it sounded like going out was okay, as long as you didn’t hug anybody and kept washing your hands. And I have to say I was curious to see what was happening on the streets. Remembering the photos I’d seen in February of deserted boulevards and public squares in Wuhan and Beijing, I was wondering if we’d gotten to that point in LA.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday. People were still out and about. I went to the market to pick up a couple of things. The place was packed, and a number of items seemed to be sold out, but most of the shelves still held plenty of goods.
Next I went to a coffee house on Cahuenga. There were about half a dozen people inside, which seemed more or less normal, but when I asked the woman at the counter how business was, she said “Super dead.” Also, when I asked for a mug, she said they were only using disposable cups. I assume that was to avoid transmitting germs.
Based on the latest updates, it does look like life in LA was be pretty different for at least the next couple of weeks, but I imagine we’ll pull through. Humanity has dealt with contagious diseases in the past, and I feel confident we’ll eventually put this one behind us. But there’s another kind of plague that’s been afflicting LA for a while, and unfortunately it looks like it will be with us for a long time to come.
I’m talking about corruption.
Corruption is a disease that’s been with us since the beginning of time. It’s always present in one form or another, but in some cases it turns both chronic and acute. For the last several years in LA we’ve been experiencing a major outbreak among our elected officials, and I doubt we’ll see a cure any time soon. Citizens have been saying for years that members of the City Council are infected, but for the most part the Council is in denial. Local media has published a number of stories that seem to confirm that the disease is running rampant at City Hall, but the few efforts that have been made to rein it in don’t appear to have taken hold.
The Englander story is just the latest episode in a long and tawdry saga. The former Councilmember is accused of having accepted tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from a businessperson in exchange for facilitating connections with a developer. You might think that since Englander no longer serves on the Council that the problem has already been taken care of. No such luck. Englander’s seat on the Council has been filled by a former aide, John Lee. Lee apparently accompanied Englander on the trip to Vegas where much of the money changed hands. He claims he wasn’t aware of anything illegal taking place, but the Feds’ indictment refers to a “City Staffer B” who sounds very much like Lee. Apparently both Englander and City Staffer B sent checks to the businessperson to reimburse them for part of the cost of the trip. Unfortunately, both checks were backdated to August 4 in an apparent attempt to make it look like they were sent before the FBI started asking questions. If this is true, then Lee is also guilty of falsifying documents.
Then there’s Arman Gabay, co-founder of the Charles Company, which filed an application years ago to build a large project in South LA. Initially the project received strong support from Councilmember Herb Wesson, who helped the developer win millions of dollars in federal loans. Coincidentally, Gabay, his family members and associates, had contributed thousands of dollars to campaign and officeholder accounts associated with Wesson. But last year the developer was charged by the Department of Justice with having bribed a County official. The trial is still pending, but the project is dead. At some point after Gabay was hit with the bribery charge, Wesson decided he could no longer lend his support. Interestingly, a recent filing by the US Attorney in the Gabay case says that wiretaps captured conversations between the developer and public officials about permitting problems and government financing for a proposed project. According to the filing, Gabay was told he could resolve the problems if he made a $10,000 campaign contribution. Sadly, the filing does not disclose the name of the official who received the contribution. We can only guess.
And let’s not forget Councilmember Jose Huizar. In 2018 the FBI raided Huizar’s home and office, and apparently among the things they were searching for were records related to the Councilmember’s fundraising efforts. Would Huizar take money from developers in exchange for project approvals? The FBI won’t discuss specifics, but the LA Times reported that a campaign committee with ties to the Councilmember received $50,000 from Onni Group just two months before a key vote on a property where the developer planned to build. No charges have yet been filed against Huizar, but the Feds aren’t the only thing on his mind. He’s also being sued by two former staffers. Among other things, the suits allege that the Councilmember was guilty of sexual misconduct, that he retaliated against those who voiced criticisms, and that he required staff members to engage in fundraising efforts during office hours.
There’s plenty more dirt to dish on the City Council, but you get the point. And actually, I could forgive a lot of things if our elected officials were just doing a decent job of running the City. But LA is falling apart. We’re in serious trouble. It’s not just that the development process has been completely poisoned by a pay-to-play culture. The way City Hall does business is inherently opaque and dishonest. A classic example is last year’s budget process. When the budget was passed in mid-2019, elected officials were patting themselves on the back and claiming that the City would see a surplus of $30 million to $70 million annually over the next four years. What a shock when six months later we were told that the City was now facing annual deficits of $200 million to $400 million over the next four years. What happened? Apparently when the City Council passed the budget they neglected to mention that they were negotiating contracts with city employees that would blow a huge hole in the City’s finances. They decided not to inform citizens about the cost of the contracts until it was done deal. Everything was done behind closed doors. Once again the public was shut out.
Our elected officials talk about addressing homelessness, but the number of people on the streets continues to rise. Renters are getting thrown out of their apartments because they can’t pay high housing costs. Streets and sidewalks are crumbling, and even with record revenues City Hall can’t find the money to maintain them properly. The urban forest, crucial to replenishing groundwater and keeping the air clean, continues to decline due to years of neglect. The Mayor blathers on about getting people out of cars and onto transit, but DASH ridership has fallen from 25 million trips in 2014 to 19 million trips in 2019. (I won’t mention Metro’s depressing ridership stats. They’re a County operation.)
And with another recession just around the corner, it looks like things will only get worse. If the Mayor and the City Council couldn’t put this house in order when times were good, what’s going to happen when the bottom falls out of the economy? The culture of corruption that pervades City Hall has fostered a secretive and opaque decision-making process where deals are cut behind closed doors and the public is kept in the dark.
This is the real plague that’s taking LA down. We’ll survive the coronavirus. It’s City Hall that’s going to kill us.