In summary

A Los Angeles City Council meeting can resemble representative democracy at its best. But in L.A. and cities throughout California, public hearings have been hijacked by commenters spewing racism and antisemitic remarks.

A meeting of the Los Angeles City Council is at least two discordant experiences at once: It’s an ennobling exercise in participatory democracy, as 15 elected officials attempt to wrestle with the most pressing problems of urban America, and it’s become a dispiriting forum for racist and antisemitic vitriol.

I was struck by both of those facts when I visited the council last week. It had been a while. The elegant chambers of the Los Angeles council once were a second home for me; I regularly attended meetings in the 1990s, taking notes and absorbing the atmosphere as council members grappled with the issues of the day: recession, inequality, racial tensions, a police force that had lost its bearings.

Nostalgia is not a particularly useful starting point for analysis but, to me, the council in those days felt both bigger and less connected to the public. Council President John Ferraro, for whom the chamber is now named, was a forceful leader who ran meetings with gruff command. Council members sat with their backs to the audience and yet seemed to reflect the city’s diverse interests. There were a couple Republicans on the council then, as well as binding allegiances, friendships and antipathies that framed most debates.

Today’s council feels friendlier — and less commanding. The seats have been flipped around to face the crowd, an overdue gesture to interacting with constituents. But the members themselves feel more detached from the problems of the city. There are no Republicans anymore, just varying degrees of liberals and leftists. 

There’s one council member, Curren Price, who is under indictment and another, Kevin de León, who drifts in a kind of internal exile ever since a recording of his participation in a nakedly racist gathering on redistricting surfaced and roiled the city. Today, de León cheerfully circulates among his colleagues and in the audience, though many people do their best to avoid him.

What’s poignant about all this is that the council also tends to genuinely consequential work. Last week, the agenda included updates on work to make Los Angeles a “smart city” by extending internet access to poorer communities. It celebrated efforts to bring healthier food into areas of the city flooded with fast-food joints and their attendant health problems.

The council devoted time to the city’s most pressing issue — its vast population of unhoused people — approving a measure to transfer funds from the county to help clear an encampment that straddles city and county land. That’s evidence of cooperation not always seen in the long struggle to help those who most need it, and it’s a testament to Mayor Karen Bass, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the city council that such cooperation, so long in the making, is actually happening.

There is evidence of community involvement, too. One item on last week’s agenda included a proposed apartment complex for the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. The proposal calls for construction of a seven-story apartment building — on its face, a useful idea for a city that is woefully short of housing. 

But the proposal has its critics. Neighbors fear the traffic it will bring and object to the rents that are proposed for many of the units. The prices the developer wants to charge would make the apartments unaffordable for many who currently live in the area, and some of those residents objected it, earnestly limiting their remarks to one minute each as they pleaded with their elected representatives.

That is representative democracy at its best: affected residents making the trip to City Hall to plead their case, to protect their neighborhood, to balance genuinely legitimate — and sometimes opposing — priorities, in this case the need for housing against the value of community. 

Those are not easy problems, and it is heartening — uplifting even — to see residents rise to the occasion and make their case.

All of which was then dashed by the other truth of today’s Los Angeles City Council in action: As with other local governments in California, it has been taken hostage by a handful of grotesque commenters whose only interest is in spewing hatred and disrupting the proceedings. 

One such “participant” pulled a fire alarm, which apparently is such a common occurrence that no one even reacted – they just waited for it to end and then went on with business.

A few minutes later, one man, accompanied by his dog and wearing a swastika emblem, took to the podium to rant about Jews and Palestinians. He may have had a point – it was hard to tell – but if so, it was lost in his invective and his continual resort to flipping off the council and its lawyer.

Another man used his time to speak through a puppet he carried on his right hand. He spoke in puppet gibberish laced with racism. Who knew puppets could be so vile?

To be clear: These demonstrators are not acting out with purpose. They’re clowns who have turned public comment into a stage for self-absorption.

Disruptive speech is not unique to the Los Angeles City Council. Similar annoyances have dogged governing bodies in Sacramento, San Diego, Ventura and across the Bay Area. But it’s shocking no matter where or when it occurs. 

And it has a cost. On the day I visited, those who came to make their points about the proposed apartment complex in Lincoln Heights took a morning off work or otherwise interrupted their lives to appeal to their government. They abided by the rules and addressed the council in an earnest attempt to govern themselves. Some of them were worried, even mad, and they had every right to expect to be heard by those who are supposed to represent them.

They did their best, in the great tradition of participatory democracy, one that stretches across modern American history, from the Port Huron Statement to last week’s meeting of the Los Angeles City Council. They argued and presented and appealed. Only to be followed by a racist jerk with a puppet.

These are contentious times, of course, and the examples in Washington, D.C., are hardly helpful. But there is nobility in local government. Would that the city council of America’s second-largest city could get back to the nobility, if not for its own sake, then for those who rely on it.

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....