We’ve grown so accustomed to rancor and even loathing between parties and factions of the federal government that we’re in danger of forgetting that the democratic process can’t work without people of different minds getting together to hash out decisions in the name of fairness and the greater good.
It was a pleasant surprise therefore to see the city council in action last week, which worked hard to check off the items of a busy to-do list without the farcical exchanges and gasbag monologues that often characterized meetings prior to the newly elected lineup, as though those sessions were some kind of late night talk show with lame jokes.
There were clearly no hard feelings, for example, between Sean Ashton and the rest of the council, particularly Alex Saab, who had tried to ace Ashton out of his rightful place in the mayor pro tem cycle of appointment—an action that drew heated protest from the Downey community. Saab’s implication was that Ashton wasn’t up to the task, that something was wrong with him somehow. Indeed Ashton rarely uttered a peep at earlier sessions I attended. But now he spoke up freely and intelligently, as if he understood the need to pull his own weight. And for his part, the chastened Saab acted an adult: no grudges, let’s move on.
Another pleasant surprise was how well Rick Rodriguez and Blanca Pacheco took to water as both political novices and newly elected council members. You’d think it would take months for them to grow into their roles within the complexities of city government, but a local orientation as well as a boot camp session in Sacramento did the trick.
The earliest part of council meetings routinely consists of each member giving the public a report on what they’ve been up to; that is, after everyone dutifully asserts how great a city Downey is, a seeming mandatory postscript to The Pledge of Allegiance. The next requirement is to take separate developments and groups and assert how great they are (boosterism is an essential part of council function; everyone does it). The new playground at Independence Park, and Downey’s Girl Scout troops, earned Pacheco’s nod. Her role with Gangs Out of Downey, and her report that there are no street gangs in the city, are genuinely noteworthy.
For his part, Rodriguez (“It was just awesome to see how great our city is”) praised the Keep Downey Beautiful program, and announced the volunteer cleanup campaign that will muster at the Metro Rail station on February 18th.
Saab preceded everyone by praising the Downey Police Department (an excellent department by any measure but also the object of required superlative); mentioning the Independence Park playground and the Downey Historical Society; asking for volunteers for that evening’s homeless count (a county-wide action); extending an invitation to the January 28 Downey Symphony performance and art show at the Downey Theatre; and singling out Jim Rodriguez of the Planning Commission for acknowledgment.
Ashton (playground, historical society) mentioned Downey’s participation in the Independent City Association and its recommendations for public safety; the projected new rail link (2029) between Artesia to South Downey; and among other announcements, the need for barriers around the iconic Bob’s Big Boy to keep drunken drivers from crashing into it, as happened earlier in the month.
Not to be outdone, Mayor Fernando Vasquez hit the city/police exacta (“The cohesiveness and support we have from our community is second to none; 90% support our police”) while praising local fire and police effort to minimize the flood damage from the recent rainstorms. He reported that the Florence Avenue overpass construction is 37% complete; cited an excellence award for our city manager, Gilbert Livas; and mentioned Downey’s inclusion as one of only a hundred cities in a nationwide Bloomberg initiative aimed at finding ways to make local governments more effective.
The awards, proclamations and acknowledgement segment followed. Healthy Heart Award. New police hires. Planning Commission. Rose Float Association. Used oil recycled artwork awards to elementary schoolkids citywide. The auditorium was packed with cops, their friends and families, kids and their families, Rose Float people, photographers and selfie-takers with council members who drifted down from the dais and into the audience. By the time it got down to city business, the place had cleared out and was nearly deserted.
Now the work began, some of it involving minutiae, like the building code update on electrical, mechanical and plumbing designed to meet green building standards; and later, how to switch Downey’s 2200 streetlights to LED lighting, which would save the city $74,000, while many of the light poles are in bad shape and their owner, Southern California Edison is, as Ashton observed, “not cooperative.”
Much of the evening was spent in earnest discussion of what to do about the homeless problem, which is clearly vexing, both nationally and to temperate Los Angeles County, which counts over 46,000 indigents. Rick Rodriguez mentioned the 90 Downey churches, as well as service clubs and nonprofit organizations, which are trying to deal with homeless needs. Vasquez wondered aloud about how to get them jobs. Livas came closest to the core of the issue when he said, “Our biggest problem is getting them to accept help.”
That’s because it’s basically a mental health issue that has somehow morphed into a social problem. No one seemed to recall that, before the Reagan administration shut down mental hospitals and clinics as a cost-cutting initiative during the 1980s, you didn’t see so many people living in the streets and under freeway overpasses. Vagrancy laws were enforced. Clinical treatment, including medication and residency, was widely available. But somehow, with the closings and the question of civil rights, and especially cutbacks in social programs, people in need were abandoned (up until a few months ago, I saw a middle-aged woman living in Furman Park, in her Lexus).
To watch the city council grapple with this intractable issue was to witness an exercise in humanity, which is no small thing. They worked hard into the night. And the discussion about committee meetings during the day, requiring council members have to leave their regular jobs, underscored Saab’s earlier statement, “You have no idea how much personal sacrifice this requires.”
Late in the evening, Rodriguez announced that he was cancelling his security firm’s contract with the city. No one asked him to. The subject never came up. But he decided on his own to avoid any conflict of interest issue (this has not been true of everyone in the council’s history, then and now).
It was then you saw what a promising team this group is already turning out to be, and how important good chemistry is with people who make policy. There are larger concerns they may not be equipped to handle, but Rodriguez’s good will seems contagious, an intangible that informs everyone in the room and may well take them farther than one would expect.