L.A.'s Mayor Eric Garcetti is taking major heat over the city's homelessness crisis. He invited reporters, including KCRW's Anna Scott, on a ride through the city to talk about the issue. But how much power does he really have to address this crisis?
Raphe Sonnenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA, is an expert on the city charter. He talks to KCRW about how Mayor Garcetti has a better relationship than previous leaders with the various factions of city government. But that he's not as powerful as the mayor of Chicago or New York. Still, he does well to tackle the homelessness issue: "Every mayor ends up with something like this but this is going to, I think, be going on for the rest of his term in office."
KCRW: I mean, with Garcetti being in office as long as he has, does he need to take more ownership for what's happening?
Raphe Sonnenshein: Yeah, I'm not sure so much what the voters are asking is an accounting of everybody who contributed to it, because that would be a pretty long list. I think what people want to feel is a sense of control and mastery of the situation coming from political leaders; and I think the distinction that he's making there is that he is willing to take that on and say, you know, if you see where we're going now, you know, talk to me about it and I'll try to make sure I can help convey that.
KCRW: Well, you know the LA City Charter better than most people -- you were the executive director of a charter reform commission – so, how powerful is the LA mayor when it comes to the kind of systemic problems that feed into a housing crisis?
RS: Well, the mayor is more powerful than many mayors have said, and a lot less powerful than the mayors of New York and Chicago. In a nutshell, the mayor is like a semi-powerful mayor: has a lot of authority over the budget, a lot of appointment authority, is given the role of managing and the executive branch of the city. But there are many institutions that can say no to the mayor: the city council, the county board of supervisors, even the school board. So, the mayor has to be someone who can get those others to cooperate, or if they don't cooperate to win against them; and I think you could say that the mayor has been pretty successful. The city and county have a better relationship on the homelessness issue than happened years ago when they were suing each other. The mayor and council are kind of on the same page. The question is what needs to be done going forward that maybe hasn't been looked at as your report indicates to dig even deeper -- that cooperation is necessary, but it may not be sufficient. Every mayor ends up with something like this, but this is going to, I think, be going on for the rest of his term in office.
KCRW: If the mayor's power lies in the power of persuasion with City Hall allies, should he be more forcefully confronting his former colleagues at City Council, where he was president for several years?
RS: Well, I think you have to pick your battles at LA City Hall. I remember the history of mayors like Sam Yorty, who basically picked a battle with the City Council every morning that he got up, and after a while he really couldn't get anything done. So, I think you have to know where to allocate your resources. I think we're all still kind of experiencing the shock of the new data, and I think it's taking some time to wear off; and I guess that the mayor is focusing on letting people know that good things are happening, and that they are going to look at other alternatives. But, at some point, there will be disagreement. There will be disagreement especially with the City Council about what will go on in their districts, and I think the mayor may have to select some battles, but you can't battle all the time.
KCRW: And, you know, if it's state lawmakers who need to write new laws, does that let the city off the hook?
RS: Oh, hardly, because local governments are in a big battle with the state about laws that would change the patterns of housing. Certainly the city would like more money for homelessness, and that appears to be coming from the state. The state’s also pursuing laws to change where housing is built and the kind of housing that can be built in LA and that really is a battle over nothing less than the physical shape of the city. I think the problem that the voters will see right now is that there's things going on on a daily basis --that you can't wait until the all new housing gets built to solve -- some of those being issues about public health and trash and things like that; and I think that the leadership is probably going to have to look very carefully at making sure that is ameliorated sooner rather than later.