Time flies faster the older you get, so it seems like only yesterday — not a year ago — that I was offered the opportunity to write a Sunday column for the News-Press & Leader and other community newspapers in the Times Community News group.
It has been an eye-opening experience.
I meet a lot of people who live on the Valley floor, in Eagle Rock, and in other middle-class communities across Los Angeles who share a deep discontent over the state of their city, and who fear the long-term trend toward things getting worse is only accelerating.
All the time, they tell me, “If I could, I’d sell out and move to the suburbs — or to another state altogether.”
But I have never met anyone in the tri-city area who says, “You can’t imagine how jealous we are that you get to live in L.A., where you have potholed streets and broken sidewalks and bad schools and big-time crooks for politicians. You are one lucky guy.”
Luck had nothing to do with it. I love big cities — the highs, the lows, the drama — but when the lows so outnumber the highs, and when drama becomes a never-ending story of the triumph of greed and selfishness, well, it becomes a pleasure to come visit towns that have actually gotten better in the 30 years I’ve been here.
We all share the most spectacular climate on earth — this winter being living proof of just how wonderful it is — and we all endure the nation’s worst traffic congestion and worst air.
But from there, our worlds start to look a lot different.
In my town, we have the nation’s highest paid local politicians by far — City Council members are paid $178,000 a year, with the most extensive benefit packages, including $40,000 cars and 20 or so staffers to wait on them hand-and-foot, and who do most of their work for them.
They take more than eight weeks a year off from work and when on duty, they spend most of their time raising vast sums of money for their next campaigns by doing favors for the union bosses, developers, corporations and political operatives who provide them with all that money, plus freebies to major sports and entertainment.
These are people who think public meetings are a form of performance art where every element is planned and rehearsed to create a TV show with a storyline that has nothing to do with what is actually going on in back rooms, a script that has nothing to do with reality.
And anything that the public might have to say is irrelevant, since the City Council, by unspoken rule, never listens to anything ordinary citizens have to say.
As for the vast army of highly paid bureaucrats, they might as well be wearing maids’ and butlers’ uniforms, since they are just obedient servants indentured for roughly 30 years, when their pensions reach maturity.
Poor you — you all are stuck with part-time elected officials who actually have jobs and careers and businesses, with little hope of ever turning into professional politicians and living off the public dole for the rest of their lives.
The people they hire, starting with the city managers, actually have real power for as long as they can keep their jobs.
It’s all a great balancing act. The city managers I’ve met in these towns could perform with Cirque du Soleil with their skill at balancing the values and idiosyncrasies of council members with the organizational needs and the expectations of the businesses and residents who are dangerous to everyone if they get too aroused and angry over the actions of City Hall.
My experience this year in suburbia is that talking to officials and highly engaged citizens at all levels is like talking to real people who are unafraid to reveal things about themselves, and share what they believe, and what they are doing, with a fair measure of honesty.
Let me be blunt: You don’t get to be a big-league politician if you are still capable of stringing two sentences together without a lie — or two, or three. The only truth you hear from big-league bureaucrats comes in a whisper, with the caveat, “Don’t quote me.”
The bottom line in this is that I live in a sprawling, disconnected city made up of a patchwork of communities at war with each other. You live in a community struggling through hard times, but sharing a sense of common identity and common purpose.
It may not always be pretty and it’s certainly not perfect. But if you want to trade places, I can find 100,000 Angelenos willing to move to Burbank in a heartbeat, 200,000 for Glendale, and enough to fill every house and apartment in Pasadena.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.