For Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, 1999 is shaping up as the make-or-break year. Several of the initiatives he's been pursuing for years are coming to a head: school reform, charter reform, a revamp of the city's business-tax structure and expansion of Los Angeles International Airport.

Much of Riordan's legacy hinges on the outcome of the April and June citywide elections, which will determine the fate of charter and business-tax reform, as well as his slate of candidates for the L.A. Unified School District Board of Education.

The question is how effectively Riordan and his backers can sell these reforms to a largely apathetic electorate. Already, his airport initiative has run into opposition from L.A. City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and neighboring cities.

The charter reform process has spun out of his control. One of the core provisions he had been advocating giving the mayor unilateral power to fire department heads now appears to be off the table. Also, his initiative to support reform-minded school board candidates caused a furor.

Making Riordan's job tougher has been a high degree of turnover among his top ranks; this past year he has had three chiefs of staff. To push his initiatives, Riordan will need more stability in his administration though that could become difficult as the end of his term approaches and staffers are more willing to accept other offers. He recently discussed these and other issues with Business Journal reporters and editors.

Howard Fine

Question: How would you assess the state of the city as we enter 1999, the last year of the century?

Answer: I've seen, starting a little over a year ago, a great acceleration in people's confidence. They are really noticing more police on the street and that crime is down 50 percent since I took office. The word has gotten around over the last two or three years about our Business Team cutting through red tape.

And one success leads to others. The movie industry is doing well, the multimedia industry is doing very well. The fashion industry is also faring well. And we passed Chicago in manufacturing this year

I do think we have long-term problems, though, whose solutions are five or 10 years away. I'm talking about transportation, housing and air travel.

Q: Where do we stand on addressing the air travel problem?

A: We need a regional solution. All predictions by the FAA and the airlines and economists are that the number of air travelers in Southern California will grow by 100 percent over the next 20 years, and the amount of cargo will go up by three and a half to four times. We all know the importance of just-in-time delivery. But as we get more multimedia and high tech, air cargo becomes ever more important.

It is absolutely important that (the soon-to-be-closed) El Toro (Marine Corps Air Station) be open as a major airport. That's because, even if we get our master plan for LAX approved, it will only take care of about one-third of what the expected increase is. Along with El Toro, we will have to double Ontario again, quintuple Palmdale and get everybody to chip in.

Q: Are you surprised by the amount of opposition to your expansion plans for LAX?

A: There's not that much opposition. It's all the press building up the opposition. That' not to say there is no opposition. Certain activists are out there take El Segundo or Westchester, for example. But I don't see fire in the belly of the people there. Our economy is important to everybody. This is going to bring quality jobs to the poor and will help the economy for everybody. If you are an accountant or lawyer in El Segundo, having a strong economy is important to you and to the value of your house.

Q: What is your role on expanding the living wage to cover contract workers at LAX?

A: I think it is totally immoral that the minimum wage at the airport is not $7.50 an hour. I have told the airlines this for the last several years. I got into a shouting match with some airline executives about a week ago over this. They are just playing games. They pay lip service to me and then nothing happens. So they are sort of getting what they deserve. I'm throwing my hands up in the air on this one. If they are going to be so stupid and ignore their workers, then they have this coming to them. I think it's bad policy to have the government force this upon them.

Q: Do you think the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is now doing its job?

A: Right now, the MTA looks about 10,000 percent better than it was a year and a half ago, which is still not very good. At least now, you have management that knows where they are at. Before this, you would sit at board meetings and listen to the management and they would tell you everything they (knew board members) wanted to hear. They got into such a habit of doing that, they finally reached the point where they didn't know what the truth was. It was a total mess. Anytime a board member wanted a project, the management would say, "Yeah, we got the money."

So now, we have control of that. We are headed in the right direction, in a muddled way. We are diverting money from fixed rail to buses and smart shuttles. L.A. is such a diffuse city that fixed rail is not an adequate solution. (But) there are still people trying to divert $250 million in fixed rail for East L.A. and Mid-Cities, which should be used now for bus service.

Q: What about the housing problem?

A: I think everybody is predicting at least a 20 percent increase in population over the next 10 or 15 years. But I don't think that's going to happen. Because there isn't housing for them. I think people are going to seek out new places to live. That is what has happened dramatically in the last few years. Look at what's happened to South L.A. Watts is 70 percent Latino and all of South L.A. is at least 50 percent Latino. And the predictions are that the Valley will be 75 percent Asian and Latino in 10 years or so.

Q: So you think the growth rate will not be as high as the predictions, but the demographics are going to change?

A: Yes. But I think it will be a healthy future, because you are talking about middle- and upper-middle-class minorities. I think a city can only handle so many poor people. We could end up strangling ourselves. We owe it to the poor people to take care of their needs, to find jobs, to get them a good education. But there is a certain point at which other cities should share in the costs of this. I think the city is going to have more or less the same balance of economically advantaged and disadvantaged people 20 years from now as it has today. It will just be a different ethnic makeup.

Q: But the forecasts say that the people will come here and that we have to build tens of thousands of units of housing just to keep up.

A: One solution is to build high-rise tenements. But nobody is in favor of that. And the affordable housing that is available now and is expected to be available will solve less than 1 percent of the problem of people not having adequate housing.

Now I don't want to suggest that I'm in favor of all the poor leaving the city. The truth is, we simply don't have the land for all the housing that would be needed for them. And there is even less land that has been set aside for affordable housing.

Q: So what you are saying is that this is a really knotty problem with no solution in sight.

A: That's right. No city has been able to solve this problem unless you are willing to build 50-story tenements. What's happening now is that outlying areas are getting these people Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Ana.

But I do see a solution, and that solution lies with education. I see a bright future for our city, but if we don't solve our education problem, particularly education of the poor, we're going to have problems in the future.

Right now, there's about 100,000 jobs in L.A. County that cannot be filled locally by quality educated people. This is really desperation time. When Mississippi passed California on literacy

Q: You announced earlier this year that you and other business leaders would be picking a slate of candidates to run for the school board. Where does that effort stand? And what do you want these candidates to do if they do get elected to the board?

A: I want them to put children first, and not bureaucrats. We have a system now which totally protects the jobs of bureaucrats. No bureaucrat gets fired for incompetence. They have to steal or be a pedophile to get fired and even then it's hard to fire them. And nobody has the backbone or will to fire a principal who fails children. At the end of each year, there are about 30 or so principals who are a disgrace to the parents and children of particular schools. So what's the district's solution? Move them to an inner-city school. That is arguably where you need the best principals. The district calls this the "dance of the lemons." You have to have the guts to use the "F" word fire. And so you have to have people who so passionately put the kids first that they have the toughness to fire people who fail kids.

Q: If your effort is successful, how long would it take to get some tangible results?

A: I think that you would see some noticeable results within 18 months to two years, and dramatic results within five years.

Look, I know that this is an uphill battle. But even if there is a 1 percent chance to solve the school problems, I'm going to take that chance. Because there really is no other choice.

Q: Aren't you concerned that the teachers' unions will oppose this effort?

A: I'm really talking about the firing of administrators, not teachers. So I would expect the teachers to be 80 percent on my side or neutral. The heads of the teachers' unions are among my close friends.

Also, if you cut out bureaucracy, the teachers will make more money. The best estimate we have now is that only 60 cents out of every dollar actually gets to the school site. Now of course they will argue that the 2,000-person bilingual bureaucracy downtown is really helping the schools. But if you just took a portion of that and put it to teachers' salaries, you could get a huge increase for them. Teachers are underpaid, and I think we should do everything we can to entice the brightest and best people into the profession.

Q: On charter reform, what's your position on the compromise that has emerged from the two committees on the mayor's ability to fire managers, in which a two-thirds council majority could override the mayor's action?

A: Well, you might as well not have a new charter. That issue is a linchpin for the whole effort. If you want to hold people accountable, you have to give authority to the mayor over people running the city. This is not a compromise; it's a surrender. Right now, the diffusion of power is such that any councilman can get anything they want out of a general manager, including consultant contracts. It's a horrible system.

I might add that the elected commission has not voted on the compromise proposal yet; I hope their initial position (giving the mayor unilateral power to fire department heads) will stand.

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