By HILDY MEDINA
Taking office for his second term as mayor last summer, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan attorney, venture capitalist and restaurateur declared that education would be his No. 1 priority.
That seemed a bit odd to some, since there already is a Los Angeles Board of Education and the mayor has no say over public education.
In an end-of-the-year meeting with Business Journal editors and reporters, Riordan stated his aim more clearly leveling harsh criticism at the Los Angeles Unified School District and vowing to change the "government structure" to reform it.
Although he was scant on details, Riordan has enjoyed considerable success with toppling the status quo. As a private citizen, he founded the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now (LEARN) and spearheaded the initiative that now limits city officials to two terms in office.
As mayor, Riordan a Republican elected in a Democrat-majority city also sparked the charter reform movement now underway to rewrite the rules, and structure, of city government.
Question: There is a perception that L.A. is back in the saddle. Is that a function of the economy, or what?
Answer: Obviously, what happens in the country affects us. The mayor can't take all the credit for crime going down or jobs coming in but he can take some of it. Basically, the economy changes because you have a safer city, a cleaner city, a friendlier city. You want to create an infrastructure of a city that is safe, friendly to business, where neighbors take control of their neighborhoods and work well with the police departments.
The key issue, and one that is high on my list, is education, because very simply it's co-equal with safety. We have an education system that has abandoned 90 percent of the economically disadvantaged people in the city, mostly so-called minorities. Therefore, a lot of them will end up doing antisocial things like crime.
It's also denying L.A. the skilled workforce to attract business and have business growth. It hits you two ways and I believe, fortunately, enough people are coming to this realization that now is the time for a revolution.
That means a change in the government structure. You can't aid a system with money. You can put in more money for smaller classroom size, you can put computers on every desk, double the teacher's salary. In Washington, D.C. they have $10,000 per pupil and it's the worst school system in the country.
People who run the school have the power to hold people accountable. And nobody is fired from the LAUSD, unless they're corrupt, (or) found nude with somebody of the same sex.
Q: What kind of revolution?
A: Well as a revolutionary I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do. You have to look at that whole government system. Having people elected by district, you get people who are more politicians than they are educators, and more interested in pleasing the local activists in their community.
Q: What kind of grade would you give the new superintendent and his business czar?
A: You're not going to get that from me. I'm working closely with both of them. I have this task force on primary schools. But for that to break through the bureaucracy (is difficult).
Q: How concerned are you about San Fernando Valley secession, and how does that factor into your education concerns?
A: I think it would be disastrous for both the whole city and the Valley. Maybe it shouldn't have been a part of the city in the first place, maybe those smaller towns out there should have been separate towns. Breaking something up doesn't work as well as stopping it from being put together. I don't think it's going to work. But hopefully it will be a catalyst to get us true charter reform.
Q: Do you get a sense there is a momentum for Valley secession?
A: You have two groups in the Valley. One that is almost in it for the power, and then you have people who are trying to look neutral and examine it. The fear I have is that these two will come together and become a very potent force. Obviously, it is gathering some steam. I'm still told that for the general public out there it's not that high on their radar screen.
Q: Do you think charter reform will be enough to stem that momentum?
A: I think we have to get the City Council to bring more services to the Valley. There are arguments about how you determine what percentage of services. The best analysis we could do is that the Valley gets 2 to 3 (percentage) points less services than they have a right to. And we're improving that. I think charter reform would accelerate that and that's why I'll try to do the best I can to relate charter reform to secession.
Q: When you say a "right to," are you talking about based on population or on the amount of tax revenues?
A: Based on what they pay into the city. Actually they get more in some of the areas, like street paving. They get a disproportionate part of that.
Q: What is the game plan as you see it in 1998 for MTA interim chief Julian Burke and the MTA board?
A: Well, first of all we need to project what we have financially. What we'll have for the next 10 years, five years, next year. To come up with an overall plan that meets our pocketbook.
Q: Is it your sense that Mr. Burke will stay on throughout 1998?
A: I'd be surprised if he left before next year. He'll stick with it until it works. Certainly through 1998.
Q: So the search for a permanent successor is still on?
A: We're not making a search at all right now.
Q: His proposal to scale back rail projects has gotten some resistance.
A: Not very vocally. A year ago it would have been a different thing. Bottom line is, you show me leadership and with that leadership (and) well thought-out plans, I'll always find you the money. Money is much easier to come by than leadership.
Q: What are your plans for a 1998 trade mission?
A: I'll be leaving mid-February to Japan, Korea and China. I'll keep zeroing in on Cosco (the China Ocean Shipping Co. Cosco's plans to build a new terminal at the rival Port of Long Beach were delayed, giving an opening to the Port of Los Angeles).
Q: Are there indications that the Cosco people are starting to veer in the direction of L.A.?
A: I can't read them. I've met with them several times. Had lunch with them about two months ago. At least they're showing interest. I think that's our big trump card with Long Beach. There's space available at the port.
Q: Besides Cosco, are there any other companies or countries that you are targeting?
A: One of the big things I want to do is encourage some of the wealthy people there, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, to think of L.A. for investments. A lot of them bought homes out here.
Q: China barred several major Hollywood studios from doing business there because of some not-so-flattering films. What's the latest on that?
A: I met with the president of China (last month), and that was about a quarter of our conversation. This is just game playing. They've made their point and they'll lift it. I think the whole theory is, next time the movie studios will think twice.
Q: Putting your businessman's hat on, what is your take on what kind of effect all this Asian financial turmoil will have on L.A.? Are you concerned?
A: All these things tend to be short-lived. Basically, they can produce things better and at a cheaper price than the rest of the world Obviously, for some period of time they will be able to ship goods over here cheaper than they were. And they will not be able to afford our goods. So it will hurt the balance of trade. Not just for L.A. but for the whole country. In the long run I don't think it's all that meaningful. I'm more worried about NAFTA.
Q: Worried about NAFTA in what way?
A: When you can have a hotel in L.A. that can ship by truck its linen to Tijuana and have it washed at a cheaper price than you can have locally.
Q: What's your day like now, vs. what it was at the beginning of your first term?
A: Actually, I'm much more productive. I have many more challenges on my plate than I had. Plus, as you go along you get more confidence on how to make things happen. The other thing is getting out in the communities, the press hasn't been as much, "gotcha." Now that I've been elected they can't really hurt me with an "I've gotcha" attitude. I can be more open. The City Council has been much nicer to me. (For) anybody who wants to be mayor it's sort of petty to take on the existing mayor. You should rise above it.
Q: Have things calmed down at the LAPD since Bernard Parks came in?
A: I'm so proud of him. He's a tough, strong manager. Ed Davis told me the other day that if he sticks around, he'll probably be the best chief since William Parker.
Q: Will you be running for governor?
A: I've got to big a job here. To go up there and run a convoluted bank where the best you could do is put less strings on the money is not for me.
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