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Searching for Backbone

by  David A. Lehrer

February 12, 2010 | 4:07 pm

The Los Angeles City Council ought to send a thank you note to Sen. John Edwards, the New Orleans Saints, Sarah Palin and the TeaParty folks for sucking up much of the PR oxygen over the past week. If it weren’t for those stories, much of LA might be completely pre-occupied with wondering how we elected a group of officials who blithely pretend that LA isn’t facing what is undoubtedly its worst financial crisis since the Depression.

Last week, the Council—-to the amazement of most observers of the local scene—-failed to cut the city budget despite the Mayor’s and the city’s Chief Administrative Officer’s (“CAO”) unquestioned warning that financial disaster was imminent. There is a budget gap of $218 million for this fiscal year and a projected $484 deficit for next year.

The CAO urged that 1,000 jobs be cut—-there is virtually no other place to find the savings necessary to keep us solvent. There is no question as to the scope and depth of the crisis—-everyone acknowledges it. There is only a shocking unwillingness on the part of a large majority of the council to demonstrate the political backbone to make very difficult and, possibly, unpopular choices.

The crisis is so profound that Mayor Villaraigosa, a product of the labor union movement and hardly one prone to eliminate public employee positions out of animus for public workers, has been forced to act in the face of the Council’s inertia. He announced plans to make the 1,000 employee cutbacks unilaterally and warned this week that even more may be needed.

We are by nature optimists; we’ve thought that given adequate information and the opportunity to make the right choices, most elected officials will act responsibly and appropriately; after all, most of them are there because they care about the common good.
How much more so, we’ve thought, when crisis looms—-when the abyss is before us—- surely electeds will suck it up and do the right thing. Boy, were we wrong!

Whether in Sacramento or now in the City Council, the capacity of elected officials to avoid making tough decisions that require a modicum of leadership seems boundless. Clearly too many of our leaders would prefer that someone else take the heat and do their dirty work so that they can go back to their funders and say, “see, I didn’t buckle, I’m your real friend!”

The posturing of Councilpersons Hahn, Koretz and Alarcon has been especially tough to take seriously—-they offer no remedies, they just want to protect every city job they’ve ever seen (assuming the members are in the favored unions) and not be concerned about the consequences of their position.

Over fifty years ago John F. Kennedy wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, in which he wrote about political leaders who were willing to make tough choices—-even at the cost of their political careers—-because of the public good they were sworn to serve. 
A man does what he must—-in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures—-and that is the basis of all human morality..…each man must decide for himself the course he will follow. The stories of past courage can define that ingredient—-they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.

Other than Councilpersons Parks, Smith and Perry, our leaders have been AWOL; unwilling to demonstrate even a little bit of the “courage” that Kennedy wrote about.

Would that our local leaders would do a bit of soul searching and summon up just a touch of backbone—-the city sure needs it.                     

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