The great promise of Los Angeles' first Latino mayor in over 100 years has vanished in a cloud of disappointment and embarrassment.
To his mounting woes, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is now in a messy tangle with three ethics investigations into what may be the dopiest scandal yet, Ticketgate - the failure to report some 80 high-priced tickets to entertainment and sporting events as "gifts" in accordance with both city and state ethics laws.
His immediate predecessor, Mayor James Hahn, indeed reported the same kinds of tickets as gifts. But Villaraigosa claims that he is exempt from these ethics laws because he attended the events in an "official capacity" - though his office has been unable to produce supporting documentation. Making matters worse, many of the "donors" are companies with big time projects awaiting city approval, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported.
Whatever is the ultimate outcome of these three investigations into Ticketgate, it is clear that Villaraigosa, who is almost half way through his second and last term as mayor, is a wounded political animal.
Los Angeles is facing a $500-$600 million dollar budget deficit that neither the mayor nor the City Council has squarely faced - or resolved. The City's credit rating has been chopped. Cuts in services, lay-offs and higher fees and taxes are almost certainly on the way.
While many cities across the country are facing the effects of the Great Recession, Los Angeles is a special case. Laura Chick, the former City Comptroller during Villariagosa's first term, loudly warned the Mayor and the City Council that the structural deficit in the city's budget was unsustainable and would result in a major crack up.
In a recent interview with Los Angeles Magazine, Chick said:
The city walked right into this crisis with a big, growing, multimillion-dollar structural deficit it had been running for years. As city controller, every year I was writing very strong letters before budget time in March saying, "We need to build up the reserve, we need to save money for a rainy day, this isn't going to last. We're spending more than we are making."
So although the recession hit America and the world like a tsunami, Los Angeles' mayor and his enablers at the City Council knew that the city was in the midst of a financial crisis before the Great Recession.
What was Villaraigosa's response? He ignored the warnings. And that's not all. In December of 2009, at a time when you would have to have been in coma not to know that the city was heading into a financial meltdown, Villaraigosa, with the support of the City Council, approved a massive give-away to the uber-powerful Department of Water and Power's union.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has thrown his support behind the labor agreement, which provides a 3.25% increase this year, followed by four raises ranging from 2% to 4%, depending on inflation. Villaraigosa said he was happy that the first-year increase would be in the form of a cash payout -- ensuring that it won't add to the base salary of DWP workers.
"That's the gift that keeps on giving," said Villaraigosa, whose appointees on the DWP board have already approved the increase.
Critics of the DWP have assailed the contract, which comes at a time when other city workers are seeing zero raises or, in some cases, pay cuts. But representatives of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, which represents more than 8,000 DWP employees, have defended the agreement, saying the first-year cash payment will not add to the utility's retirement costs.
This is not exactly brain surgery - at a time of great financial distress, you do not grant a juicy contract to your union backers at the expense of the city's fiscal survival.
There are many other cringe-worthy issues that surround Villaraigosa like ants at a picnic. There is the much ridiculed December 2009 jaunt through Europe, clocking in at $120,000 in expenses. Los Angeles TV station KTLA obtained the receipts of the Mayor's 9-day tour of Europe, a trip ostensibly to drum up business for Los Angeles, and it's not a pretty picture.
The exuberance of the trip - "drivers at a cost of $22,329," "three dinners totaling $3,576," "passes to the Arndal Spa for workouts ($283)" - contrasted bizarrely with the looming financial crisis back in Los Angeles.
And of course, there is the telenovela that is Villaraigosa's personal life. While his love life is his own business, the public messiness of his cheating and resulting divorce only helped to cement the perception that this mayor is more interested in fun ("free" court-side tickets to the Lakers!) and fame ("free" seats at the Oscars!) than in actually governing.
So it should not come as a surprise that there is a growing chorus of Angelenos demanding a recall election to throw the Mayor out of City Hall and restore some adult supervision to the city's government.
While these passions are understandable, and perhaps even completely justified by the toxic combination of the Mayor's incompetence in dealing with the city's crisis and his obsession for the limelight, it would be a mistake to recall Villaraigosa.
Here are five reasons why voters should let Villaraigosa finish his term:
1. Elections have consequences. Villaraigosa won 55% of the vote in his reelection last year. That comes to 152,613 votes cast for the Mayor out of the 1,596,165 total registered voters in the city. In other words, Villaraigosa was reelected by about 10% of the electorate. You didn't vote? Don't complain. This is a democracy's ultimate "teachable moment."
2. Most of the City Council members would jump at the chance to replace Villaraigosa. These are the same zombies that stumbled into the financial meltdown hand in hand with Villaraigosa. The Los Angeles City Council is largely made up of craven mediocrities who have objectively failed as leaders during this crisis. We don't need another weak mayor beholden to special interests.
3. There is inherent risk in changing jockeys in the middle of a race. The crisis of Los Angeles is the creation, or at least the result, of gross incompetence on the part o the Mayor and the City Council. They made the mess, let them clean it up and pay the political price.
4. According to former Mayor Richard Riordan in a recent interview on my radio program, there is a real risk that Los Angeles could collapse into some kind of municipal bankruptcy. A change in leadership at this time would be highly destabilizing and diminish the chances of navigating through the storm into safe harbor. A messy recall election - and it would be very messy - will undoubtedly spook bond investors and rating agencies even further. The result could be a self-actualizing financial catastrophe where the city is unable to meet its financial obligations from its own revenues or borrow money to keep operations running.
5. A high-profile expulsion of the Mayor would further damage Los Angeles' image. Our city still has a powerful, global brand. To the outside world, we continue to represent the promise of the Golden State. An electoral coup may damage the city's brand for many years - and possibly discourage new business investment at a time when the city desperately needs jobs and economic expansion.
Short of the ethics investigations into Ticketgate resulting in criminal charges, or some other major revelation of wrongdoing, Villaraigosa should finish his term.
And every day he will remind the voters of Los Angeles why elections truly matter.