To fellow citizens hoping to be heard at an L.A. City Council budget meeting, may I offer these words of advice: Be prepared to wait a long, long time.
Los Angeles is facing a deficit of close to $500 million; on Friday the City Council held a special meeting to present the report of the budget and finance committee. Next week, the council will begin the approval process; it promises to include cuts to almost all city services (although the police department will be largely spared). On Friday, people advocating against the cuts filled the grand art-deco chamber and the hall outside. Firefighters wearing matching T-shirts, workers from parks and recreation in green, people from gang intervention programs, librarians and others waited on wooden benches for their chance to speak.
Many who arrived before the meeting began at 9 a.m. signed up to give public comment. But before they could, the council had to have its discussion. Council members discussed the budget the council had received from the mayor, measures they had taken to find more revenues and efforts they'd made to ameliorate layoffs and cuts. Discussion led to some council members playing to the crowd, which led to pronouncements, which led to barely-veiled bickering, which led to pontification. After 90 minutes, with the room growing restless, the City Council finished but decided to take care of other matters -- saying goodbye to two retiring city employees -- before opening up the public comment period.
Finally, at 11 a.m., 10 union representatives were allowed to speak. Each was given two minutes -- all others who had signed up would have just one minute. First, firefighters pleaded their case. Then Roy Stone, president of the library guild, did the same for libraries, noting that 40,000 people had signed a Save the Library petition (full disclosure: I've signed it) as librarians in the audience stood in silent solidarity.
And so it went. Civilian employees in the public safety division, who've been targeted. Parks and recreation. Child care. Gang intervention. On and on.
What soon became clear to me was that despite the time constraints, each of the speakers did a better job of communicating how they felt about this city, and their role in it, than just about any of the politicians. For the most part they were focused, and revealed emotion -- anger, passion, even sadness.
I'm still perplexed by Councilman Greig Smith's insistence that "public safety remains first and foremost the core function of the city." Do we still define safety as law officers carrying guns? Can we possibly be helping public safety by cutting after-school programs in our public parks, cutting gang intervention programs and cutting libraries?
A librarian read testimonials in her 60 seconds at the mic. "I'm an eighth-grade student with no home computer," one said. "I need the library." After this budget, where might they safely go to do homework? What alternatives will that student have?
Hearing all these people's heartfelt pleas together -- about the city they work for, whose fabric they help weave, and what each of these cuts will mean -- revealed just how much Los Angeles stands to lose as it faces the coming budget year.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Librarians stand as Roy Stone, president of the Librarians Guild, speaks in City Council chambers on Friday. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times