Several years ago the magazine began hosting breakfast conversations with Angelenos of interest. At my invitation, 75 people or so gather before work to hear me talk about the future of the LAUSD with Superintendent John Deasy, say, or watch me grill outgoing police chief Bill Bratton. One morning last year I got insight into one of my favorite TV shows, asking the head writers of Breaking Bad for dish on the final season. For sheer civic import, no breakfast topped the one I hosted a few weeks ago with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.
Mayor Garcetti was candid and self-critical: He admitted that we are wholly unprepared for a big earthquake; he called LAX a lousy welcome mat (“You arrive, and you have no sense that you’re in Los Angeles”); he said too many of our public schools were islands that “don’t speak to the community.” I questioned why the city has such a poor record of civic engagement; he said that in fact, of the many movers and shakers he has buttonholed to discuss initiatives for greater participation, few had turned him down. They were, he said, just waiting to be asked.
All politics are local, the saying goes, but in L.A., politics are like microclimates. The parent worried about her child’s school in Highland Park probably doesn’t have the same concerns as the Brentwood resident stewing over a pothole. Beyond geographic sprawl, our ossified system of government contributes to this disconnect. In 1925, a 15-member L.A. city council answered to a population of about 1 million residents; today 15 people represent 4 million.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors is even more unrepresentative and byzantine. Each of the five supervisors represents 2 million people—the equivalent of the entire population of New Mexico. Unregulated by term limits for decades (that only changed in 2002) and controlling an annual budget of up to $25 billion, the supes (currently nicknamed “four kings and a queen”) oversee the county’s health care program, sheriff’s department, jails, arts and culture funding, foster care program, and transit system. Let me reiterate: Five people. For more on this, read Hillel Aron’s piece in this issue about the most wide-open supervisors’ race in generations.
At the end of my talk with Mayor Garcetti, we discussed ways in which Angelenos can become more engaged in their city. Suggestions? Embrace the L.A. of your passions: If you love books or the outdoors, volunteer at our cash-strapped libraries or public parks. If you run a business, offer disadvantaged teenagers summer jobs and encourage their ambitions (they’ll certainly help you see the city in a different light). Run for your neighborhood council. And of course, vote in every city race. Consider that the mayor prevailed in last year’s election with a paltry 23 percent registered voter turnout—the lowest showing in a two-person Los Angeles mayoral race in 100 years. If you were one of those who voted, you did so on behalf of three of your neighbors who didn’t. That’s a lot of decision-making power—almost enough to make you feel like one of the L.A. County supes.