By Aaron Blevins, 1/10/2013
Five candidates vying to be Los Angeles’ next mayor faced off in a debate on Jan. 3 at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, fielding questions about the future of the city’s education system, fiscal solvency and public safety agencies.
Hosted by volunteer organization CivicCare, the debate was moderated by David Suissa, president of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Five candidates contending for the March 5 mayoral nod — Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti, Kevin James, Jan Perry and Emanuel Pleitez — participated.
One of the overarching issues discussed at the debate was the $220 million deficit facing Los Angeles’ next mayor. Pleitez, a technology company executive, said that deficit could be much higher by March, and that action must be taken now.
“We’re actually on the brink of bankruptcy,” he said. “This is not a joke. And why? Because the elected officials who have been in office overpromised.”
Pleitez denounced past city decisions to increase salaries and pension benefits for city employees in 2007, and said pension reform is a must to avoid further cuts. He said in five years, Los Angeles’ pension obligations will be 50 percent of its budget. Pleitez suggested increasing employee contributions, raising the retirement age and moving toward a system similar to the 401k.
Garcetti, a Los Angeles City Council member, seemingly took issue with Pleitez’s statements, saying that Los Angeles had been projected four years ago to have a $1 billion deficit this year. After “the toughest recession in our lifetime,” the city reduced its payrolls by 5,000 people and altered its benefits so that people are paying out of pocket for their healthcare premiums for the first time in the city’s history, he said.
“I led negotiations with unions across the table — respectfully but tenaciously. …You think that was easy? You think that it’s a fun thing to go to people and say, ‘We’re going to take something away.’ But leadership is not about telling people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear,” Garcetti said.
Like Garcetti, Greuel, the city’s controller, feels that the city’s financial problems could be alleviated by creating more jobs. She referenced the entertainment industry, saying that the city has “ran-away production.”
“I’ve managed a department, and I’ve been able to say that the future of Los Angeles will depend on job creation and making sure our money is spent wisely,” Greuel said.
She said “cuts are not a way forward for our city,” and that the city needs to create the jobs of the future and continue to create hubs of economic activity. Greuel also said the next mayor needs to address pension reform.
James, a former radio broadcaster and attorney, said Los Angeles’ financial woes stem from “complete municipal malpractice.” He said it is easy to blame the issues on the recession, though “lots of people” warned officials of what loomed in 2007, when the pension negotiations took place.
“The city was in deficit then,” James said, mentioning other financial contingencies that could arise by March. He added that the new mayor will have the leverage of bankruptcy to negotiate with unions. “That’s exactly what it’s going to take to solve the problem.”
Perry, also a member of the city council, lamented the decision to give city employees pay raises in 2007, saying that she would do it differently now. With the damage done, the city must focus on its mandated services, and decide whether it wants to privatize or enter a public/private partnership with potential operators of the zoo and convention center, she said.
“This is where we find ourselves and this is what we must do,” Perry said, adding that economic development will be a key component as well.
Though the mayor has no power over the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the candidates were asked how they would improve education in the city.
Greuel said the future of L.A. depends on it, as schools play a large role in neighborhoods. She said the mayor must ensure that the city receives education resources from the state, and work to hold teachers, parents and students accountable for the quality of public education in Los Angeles. Greuel also lobbied for longer school years.
“I will continue the efforts to ensure that we do have accountability,” she added.
James said the city could pursue corporate tax credit scholarship programs, education improvement tax credit programs and work-study programs. He said he is in favor of school choice, and the city needs to find ways for parents to implement those choices.
“The mayor must be willing to … use the power of the mayoral podium and the microphone to affect reform, to improve education,” James said.
Perry also approves of school choice, but said the mayor should strive to bring additional resources to schools. The LAUSD should also strive to share facilities and resources, increase cultural opportunities and focus on affordable early childhood education, she said.
“In a lot of ways, our traditional school system has failed our children,” Perry added.
Pleitez said education should be tied to the economy, in that the private sector and the workforce should be aligned through education and training. He said education — for children and adults alike — should be a 24/7 priority for the new mayor.
“It should be about service delivery,” Pleitez said. “It should be about supplying educational opportunities for all.”
Garcetti said education is not just the LAUSD’s responsibility. Although the district decides what to cut, the city needs leaders to make pitches for education funding and promote a system that produces jobs, he said.
“The first thing I would look at … is the funding of the schools,” Garcetti said. “You see, we’re getting ripped off every single year. Proposition 98 — that you passed — said that we should be getting $7,000 per student a year.”
The candidates also discussed the city’s police and fire departments. While crime is at an all-time low, residents must continue to feel safe in their communities, Perry said. She said 70 percent of the city budget is spent on police and fire.
“Under my watch, that would not change,” Perry said. “That is a top priority.”
She said the city must be more efficient and effective in the way its first responders are managed. That entails integrating technology into operations, containing overtime and ensuring that contributions are managed in an equitable way, Perry said.
Pleitez said Los Angeles needs to fix the pension system, as issues involving the police and fire departments are budget-related. He said two-thirds of officers’ time is spent behind a desk.
“We don’t have a problem with the size of the police force, we have an efficiency and effectiveness problem,” Pleitez said. “We need better management.”
Garcetti said it is imperative that the city retain its current number of police officers. He said economic development will lead to more jobs, which will lead to more city revenue and more officers, which leads to more development.
“It’s a cycle, so we have to become a more business-friendly city in order to afford the police officers,” Garcetti added.
Greuel said the departments need resources, one of which, civilian employees, have been reduced. She said less civilian workers means fewer officers on the streets. It also means overtime, and the LAPD has accrued more than 800 hours, which could lead to a financial issue for Los Angeles, Greuel said.
“It is tragic to me that it’s easier to get a gun than it is to get mental health services,” she said. “We need to change that.”
James agreed that police officers are spending too much time behind a desk. He said this was due to outdated policies and a lack of technology integration.
“We don’t have to get to a magic number of police officers to be effective with public safety in our community. We just have to be efficient,” James said, adding that upgraded technology would benefit the fire department as well.
The candidates also gave pitches as to how they would improve traffic congestion. James suggested opening new parking structures, and putting in right-hand signals at intersections so that cars turning right could leave the intersection before pedestrians enter the crosswalk. Perry called for better traffic signal synchronization with neighboring cities, and a better road structure at UCLA and LAX. Pleitez said the city needs to increase all mobility options by attracting private capital to fix infrastructure. Garcetti suggested adding transit lines, improving “walk-ability” and bonding against Measure R money to pave 1,600 miles of city streets. Greuel said the city could start improving congestion by paving Wilshire Boulevard.
While five candidates participated in the debate, three others — Addie Miller, Norton Sandler and Yehuda Draiman — were not in attendance.