Council District 15: Questions, and frustration
City Council members must balance the work and the advocacy they do for their districts and constituents against the attention they give to citywide matters -- and the top citywide matter for now and the foreseeable future is the budget. Los Angeles government doesn't have enough money to do everything residents have come to expect it to do. So at very least we have to cut some services and/or raise some revenue. A leader with vision, though, could help Angelenos redefine what it is that a city government should be expected to do, and that will help us to decide what services to cut, whether to raise taxes, or even how to get other governments or the private sector to serve us better.
So when a candidate is running for office, it's fair to expect that person to have given this most important issue some thought. It would not be out of line to expect a five-point plan, or a white paper, or at least some well-thought-out priorities and an agenda for achieving them. That's part of what we look for at The Times editorial board when assessing candidates: Do they have a plan? Is it something the city could and should embrace? Is it achievable? Are they the proper people to lead us toward that achievement?
The two runoff candidates in Council District 15 to succeed Janice Hahn should be expected to master that most basic part of running for office. We have a budget crisis. What would you do about it?
It was an exercise in frustration, then, speaking on Dec. 12 to Assemblyman Warren Furutani and Joe Buscaino. Neither would commit to anything. Perhaps that goes too far -- Buscaino committed to not cutting the police or fire departments. But he would not commit to any particular budgetary trade-off to keep public safety services intact, just as Furutani said we couldn't do business as usual, but would not commit to any particular change in course.
To be sure, this is straight out of the candidate handbook: Express outrage at the present state of affairs, but don't say what you would do to fix it, because decisions make enemies as well as friends.
But this is ridiculous. You're running for office. You want people to vote for you. Why should they? What will you do? How will you lead?
The Times usually conducts endorsement interviews with candidates behind closed doors and off the record. This time we did it differently and will share some of the discussion with you.
Listen, for example, to this series of exchanges with Furutani. And note the growing exasperation as we try to get responses. The questions as written here are paraphrases; you can listen to our actual queries together with Furutani's answers. Questioners are editorial board members Jim Newton, Jon Healey, Nick Goldberg and me, Robert Greene.
Is there anything the city currently does that it should no longer be doing?
Furutani: "I think everything's on the table to be re-examined for government."
What non-core functions should the city no longer try to perform?
Furutani: "[The city should continue to work on] potholes, streetlights, cleaning up alleys, getting rid of graffiti."
Yes, but don't you think voters ought to know beforehand what kinds of choices you would make?
Furutani: "In terms of details, in terms of what city things, services should be provided, I'm just not sure."
But surely the new guy, Joe Buscaino, would have a good handle on the decisions that need to be made? Maybe something somewhere has to be cut, he said, or maybe we need more revenue, but don't cut police or fire.
Buscaino: "We just cannot take a step back when it comes to [public safety] staffing."
But what trade-offs would you make to ensure that public safety staffing is not cut?
Buscaino: "For me, being that grassroots candidate, everything is on the table to address that issue."
But what would you lead on?
Buscaino: "Waterfront development."
One more time: Because you acknowledge we have to cut something, is there anything the city doesn't need to do? Anything we could or should cut or leave to someone else?
Buscaino: "I leave that on the table, once again, if I get in."
The upshot with either candidate is that the council office becomes a kind of suggestion box, without a leader's vision, knowledge or power to mobilize; or perhaps it makes no difference what the candidate says because the ultimate marching orders on what to cut or what taxes to raise comes from those other folks -- the ones raising the campaign money. So why, again, should voters choose one candidate over the other?
More audio outtakes to come.
Photos: Joe Buscaino, left, and Warren Furutani. Credit: Robert Greene