The LA Podcast

The Legitimacy Crisis in City Hall

by Scott Frazier
March 26, 2020

Los Angeles has been torn apart in the past decade by scandal and crisis. The Great Recession that served as the capstone for the criminal administration of George Bush II in the aughts gave way in the Obama years to maybe the most unequal economic recovery in history. The rich became dizzyingly richer, and, in Los Angeles as elsewhere, the average resident was laden down with longer work hours, falling real wages, and ever-more expensive rent.

When we review the unsurpassed challenges we faced here in the 2010s – among them an unconstitutionally overfull prison system, the worst homelessness crisis and the least affordable housing in the country, a resurgent national xenophobia aimed at migrant Angelenos – it is no wonder that we have become so troubled by the apparent incapacity of our leaders to lead. In each case, the response of the City has been faltering and dilatory; in an era that seemed to demand urgency and vision, the council ruled as though things were going quite well.

This disconnect between Angelenos and their political leaders has become starker recently. As the shadow of government corruption has overtaken City Hall, with no less than four sitting councilmembers known to be intimately related to an ongoing FBI investigation, the council as a whole has continued to act as though it is above question, as though it owes no answers to the rest of us. 

All this has accomplished is to further cement the opinion, now widespread, that the council is carrying on like things are fine because they have benefited, legally or otherwise, from the very same set of circumstances that have left the greater populace economically floundering. Nominally our representatives in office, you will these days more often find that Angelenos see their politicians lining up against them.

And, now, we find ourselves in the midst of a still-greater crisis, facing the acutely dire prospect of a significant cohort of Angelenos losing work and wages for months or more due to the Covid pandemic as family and neighbors fall ill around them. When the immediate emergency conditions pass, they will be supplanted by the longer term question of what the changed city we emerge into will look like. It is not a given that we will even recognize Los Angeles when this is over. In this moment, time is precious; many millions of human futures are being ironed out minute-by-minute by the decisions of our public officials.

It is our unique misfortune, then, that the task of administering the solutions to these latest troubles should fall to the same city government that has been so readily dismissive of the public they serve – that this crowning challenge should arise at a moment when few if any Angelenos actually expect their city council to fight for us with the same backroom vigor that they advocate for themselves.

On Monday, the day before city council was scheduled to take up a raft of measures responsive to the coronavirus pandemic, Council President Nury Martinez announced that that meeting and the only other remaining meeting scheduled in the month of March would be canceled. The cancelations were ostensibly due to the City’s inability to establish a Brown Act-compliant means of remotely conducting its business, a feat that has been accomplished already by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and locally by the Glendale and Culver City councils.

Council President Martinez seems to not have expected much in the way of public response to her unilateral decision to close up shop on legislating until an undefined future time when perhaps millions of her residents might already be delinquent on rent and utility bills and struggling to procure the basic essentials of residential life. Consequently, she did not even address her statement to Angelenos; it was rather given as more of an “fyi” for her colleagues on the council.

The response she received was volcanic. By the end of Monday, Martinez was forced to proffer at least some explanation for the leadership vacation that she had initiated at the exact time that Angelenos demanded action. This explanation was then followed by additional press statements – although no explanation has been provided for the decision to cancel two weeks’s worth of meetings simultaneously, which seemed to give the lie to the 6th District’s claim that it intended a speedy resumption of the council’s duty all along – to the effect that council could and would hold an emergency meeting if the City’s Information Technology department could manage to figure out rote teleconferencing.

By Wednesday, Martinez and her colleagues had been hounded beyond their limits by a furious public and announced that an emergency meeting of the council would be held Friday. Even there, the lack of urgency was apparent. As the Council President was posting quasi-heroic pictures of her and her staffers attempting to prove out their remote meeting procedure, the outrage continued unabated. Why were these solutions being hammered out two days subsequent to the cancelation of the meetings and nine full days after the announcement of the Governor’s quarantine order that was the initial proximal justification for the meetings to be canceled? Why was the emergency meeting scheduled for Friday rather than for the earliest available moment?

It’s hardly a coincidence that last week, just days before Martinez turned the City’s response to Covid into a farce, there came another break in the federal investigation into City Hall corruption. That was when Justin Jangwoo Kim, a political fundraiser and real estate appraiser, pleaded guilty to a charge of bribing a member of the City Council to affect the outcome of an appeal related to a residential development in the City.

During a period from 2016 to 2017, Kim was a go-between for a developer and the unnamed councilmember – who held a seat on the Planning and Land Use Management committee that has figured so centrally into the FBI’s inquiries – to funnel a payment of half a million dollars in cash to secure a vote the developer needed. Kim profited richly from his participation in the scheme and made it clear in conversations with one of the councilmember’s staffers that he expected to continue to do so over the next decade or more.

This detail came up in the filing because the councilmember in question was also seeking Kim’s help in another matter – the succession of a relative of the councilmember to his seat following the upcoming end of his tenure.

As previously mentioned, the filing in Kim’s case doesn’t name the councilmember, but the information provided appears to uniquely point to José Huizar of the 14th District. He was the only councilmember to tick every box of belonging to both the PLUM and Economic Development committees during this time period while also developing a concrete succession plan for the end of his term.

Huizar has been regarded as the FBI’s focus for a year and a half now, and yet, with the exception of the loss of his committee assignments, the council has been remarkably forbearing in their judgment of their colleague’s conduct. Even the most recent revelations in this case have spurred no immediate calls among the City’s elected officials for Huizar to resign; no censure of any kind appears to be in the offing.

The corruption scandal and the fumbled Covid response resist attempts at separation. The totality of City Council’s conduct, assessed together, suggests that this body, which has spent so many years attuned to the whims of moneyed interests and deaf to the fears and the hardships of the electorate, is not equipped now to address itself to the most expansive crisis set before it thus far. The muscles of governance have atrophied in City Hall. There is no trust among Angelenos that the City will guard them against the privation to come; none has been earned.

City council, though they have been slower than most to realize it, has become encumbered by a crisis of legitimacy that they themselves have constructed over the course of many years. For it is legitimacy, revocably granted by the public, that they have continually abused in privileging their wants above all else. With every disclosure from the federal investigation, a new brushstroke is added to the portrait of a government that exists to further its own interest irrespective of consequence for themselves or others.

In such a circumstance as we now find ourselves, more than ever, public officials need legitimacy to govern effectively. It is the capital that the politician can dip into to give hope for the future, the stock by which they can assure the public that all normalcy is not lost to chaos. In the absence of legitimacy, perhaps we will have finally united the council and their voters together in fear of what comes next, as the scalding anger of the public continues to rise.