The Craziest Los Angeles City Council Meeting Ever... and what the Los Angeles Times didn't tell you about it
This is an archival newsletter, originally published on March 29, 2020. See more from the vaults at our Mailchimp archive here.
Never tell us that local politics are boring.
Friday morning, we turned on public Channel 35 to watch Los Angeles City Council hold their first meeting since Council President Nury Martinez had unilaterally shut down the legislature on March 23, her second illegal work stoppage in a week. After furious public outcry by anxious citizen activists under pandemic lockdown, she scheduled an emergency, virtual meeting with 24 hours notice.
We were anticipating a few cheap laughs at the expense of the luddite council members, stuck at home without digitally savvy staffers to provide tech support. But while there were plenty of glitches affecting the virtual Zoom meeting (which you can watch here, minus the porno footage that prankish callers slipped onto the screen), the real comedy happened just offstage.
The meeting was to begin at 11am, and got going about fifteen minutes late. At 11:24am, journalist Natalie Brunell, who is often first off the block with public corruption news, tweeted "#BREAKING: In surprise reversal, embattled former LA Councilman Mitchell Englander pleads guilty (PDF link) to federal charge of falsifying material facts."
It was a bombshell that smoked just out of frame for what would turn out to be more than ten hours of wild political theater.
What does it mean that Englander, the former number two man after Jose Huizar on the powerful Planning and Land Use Management Committee—who mysteriously quit his cushy city job in 2018, shortly after the FBI raided Huizar's City Hall office—had made a deal with the Justice Department?
We asked a Federal law enforcement source, and got the skinny.
The Feds have audio and video of Englander accepting bribes and sexual services in exchange for political favors, then instructing a cooperating witness to lie to investigators. He is facing decades in prison.
His deal is what's known as an "open plea" proffer, a one-time chance to tell what he knows about public corruption at Los Angeles City Hall, and in the extended City Family of lobbyists, land use consultants, commissioners, attorneys and property developers who come together to make fortunes from the public trough. If he reneges on this deal, minimizes, or seeks to protect anyone, the U.S Attorney will vacate his plea and throw the proverbial book at the guy.
And in a twist worthy of Agatha Christie, this explosive piece of news dropped at the very start of Friday's City Council meeting!
Trapped in front of their laptops attending the virtual meeting were fifteen potential co-conspirators, including Englander's deputy and hand-picked successor John Lee (aka "City Staffer B" from the fatal Las Vegas corruption junket, whose involvement in a criminal conspiracy was further clarified in the new plea documents).
They had to sit on their duffs and do the people's work, which dragged through lunch and dinner and on into the night with long stretches of powerful public comment (with hundreds unable to get through to speak), repeated interruptions by an activist City Attorney who seemed dead set on stopping them from passing any new laws, and a remarkable inability by these seasoned political professionals to draft legislation on the fly.
Of course, recent emails pried out of Gil Cedillo's office showed us that City Council prefers to outsource this painstaking work to a network of friendly lobbyists and land use attorneys.
But times of great crisis create opportunities. And if about half of the City Council were unwilling to advocate for their desperately frightened constituents, trapped between a looming rent payment and the danger of contracting a deadly virus if they violate the Mayor's stay home order to go out and work, Venice Councilman Mike Bonin argued passionately for their rights, and followed up today with his own recap. His humanity was refreshing in a sea of stilted bureaucracy.
Although some work was done, Los Angeles was not well served by its City Council in Friday's epic meeting. With no protections in place, landlords are still evicting tenants. Nobody said anything about the Federal charges that implicate their colleague Jose Huizar in vote selling and their colleague John Lee in fraud, conspiracy and accepting bribes. Several councilmembers attacked renters on the basis of character. Joe Buscaino has weird taste in lamps and is mean to his kids.
But when the next City Council meeting is announced, things could look very different around the horseshoe. After nearly a decade of slow and secret work, it appears the Federal corruption investigation will soon snap its trap around the necks of a number of public officials. The timing of the Englander plea announcement was no coincidence. Nor was the announcement of a new General Manager for the Department of Building and Safety. And activist citizens are now making their own land use policies and demanding that the Mayor do what City Council would not.
We hope that our elected officials enjoyed their long day at the virtual office. For some, it might be the last "honest" day of work that they do for a long, long time.
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AND WHAT'S THE NEXT TOUR? WHO KNOWS?!
We're dark until public health officials determine that groups can gather safely. All tours through May 9 will be rescheduled, and the rest of the May-June schedule is to be confirmed or rescheduled. But we've got 132 episodes of the podcast You Can't Eat The Sunshinefree to download for armchair explorers, and videos of the Downtown L.A. LAVA walking tours, plus new Cranky Preservationistvideos. And while we're not shipping physical books right now, Kim's 1920s cult mystery novel The Kept Girlis available as an ebook.
The June 7 forensic science seminar with arson and bomb expert Ed Nordskog has now been postponed, and will be re-scheduled as soon as Cal State Los Angeles allows outside events back on campus. Snag your spot soon for Detective’s Casebook: Profiling Serial Bombers & Mothers’ Burning Rage, because it will sell out!
AND FINALLY, LINKS
Spotlight on Small Business: The puppets recently moved into new quarters but The Bob Baker Marionette Theatre can't perform... Divine’s, Monterey Park's oldest and coolest business, wants to help you antique shop virtually... Skylight Books, Vroman's and Larry Edmunds have closed their stores, but can deliver any book you want by mail... Our Arts District tour departure spot Urban Radish delivers groceries and prepared foods in Downtown, or pickup... Bauer Pottery has a special on slightly imperfect examples of their retro California designs... If your Mac catches a bug, Di-No Computers of Pasadena is the friendly, family owned place to get it fixed up good as new (as featured on our podcast)... Old school Little Tokyo restaurants and sweet shops have embraced the internet to keep the lights on with take out service... 1933 Group deserves a medal for restoring the ruined Formosa Cafe, but they'll be happy if you just invest in a future night out... New Facebook group: What's Open Los Angeles - a Guide to Local Businesses open during COVID-19... and here at Esotouric, we'd sure appreciate your thinking of us for your gifting needs.
In LACMA News: LACMA demolition moves forward, but coronavirus pauses Academy and Lucas construction. As major funder David Geffen faces outrage for a tone-deaf Instagram photo of his mega yacht, Save LACMA non-profit calls for new building funds to be returned to the County to aid in the humanitarian crisis facing Los Angeles.... Save LACMA!
New Cranky Preservationist Video: Our natty anti-hero returns, and this time he’s taking names—and severing limbs. You’ll know why when you watch Episode 25: Don’t F— With My Bunker Hill Retaining Wall.
L.A. Taco: A List of Coronavirus Resources Because Our Political Leaders Have Largely Failed Us.
Our Richard Schave was on KPCC’s Take Two talking about that wonderful Sierra Madre time capsule, E. Waldo Ward & Son Marmalades. And did you know...? They deliver! (Starts at 33:00 in the episode)
File under: simple pleasures - Peter Grey Kacti Needle Pointer For Phonograph Play Demonstration. (Oakland-based Grey was a con man who falsely claimed his cactus needles would make your records last forever.)
Add another landmark to the list of gems demolished by order of corrupt City Councilmember Jose Huizar, ex- of LAUSD. Stiles Clements' radio station KEHE (1936), where Clifford Clinton railed against corrupt politicians, fell in 2003. Then he got the Ambassador Hotel!
The best thing to happen in locked down America is Tim from Security taking over social media for the National Cowboy Museum.
The Pasadena Museum of California Art shut in 2018 due to financial problems, but remains one of 25+ virtual Southern California museums mapped by Google Arts & Culture.
Los Angeles: please keep an eye out for historic preservation superhero Steve Luftman's 1978 Crossle 32f race car and open trailer (CA plate TC2362), stolen from a underground garage in the valley on 3/22.
Oh, just reading 1912 updates to the Los Angeles public health ordinance, creating rules for safe burial of victims of plague, smallpox, typhus fever, yellow fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, glanders, leprosy... and, uhm, "Asiatic" cholera. It was ever thus, this pandemic racism.
Historic preservation dreams can come true, it can happen to you, even when the property owner is a double-crossing skunk, when Nita Lelyveld champions your cause, and the landmarked Edinburgh Bungalow Court is saved!
We're impressed with Lex Roman's newsletter LA Pays Attention, which seeks to demystify city government, a friendly civics lesson that might help Angelenos rebuild this beat down, beautiful town.
After years of illegally renting rent-controlled Venice apartment rooms by the night, Lance Jay Robbins has been sued by senior tenants fearing Covid-19 from tourists. Los Angeles needs an ordinance barring slumlords from owning multifamily property.
The Internet Archive's National Emergency Library may not be entirely legal, but we’ve still made a curated list of free L.A.-centric reads, from Leo Politi’s lost Bunker Hill to utopian Llano. Please read responsibly.
Nate N' Al's, 75 year old Beverly Hills deli, shuttered by zillionaire owner Irving Azoff. The Feds will cover payroll, and we think staff should have the chance to buy it. Azoff also owns the Apple Pan—uh oh! (Update: after 24 hours of bad PR, a spokesperson says the deli might come back.)
Bittersweet interview with Alexis Manya Spraic about M for Magic, her doc about the Larsen Family and Magic Castle. It was to premiere at SXSW and the Castle is closed for the duration. But it's something to look forward to on the other side. And you can watch producer Nick Coles' short film about Esotouric here.
Remembering Ann Walnum, who fought like a lion to protect the Southwest Museum. Her fight will go on!
The Brig Pilgrim replica, that cool bit of living history docked beside the Ocean Institute at Dana Point, is sinking to the briny depths. RIP Pilgrim 2.0 (1945-2020).
An oral history of how family-owned Texas supermarket chain H-E-B is handling the Covid-19 crisis and serving their communities might be the most inspiring thing you read today.
yrs for Los Angeles,
Kim and Richard