interview/44" with box/mike1st/mark2nd

Keith Comrie

Title: City administrative officer, city of Los Angeles

Born: Schenectady N.Y., 1939

Education: B.S. in accounting and master's in public administration, both from USC

Most Admired Person: His mother, who fought to give her son an education and battled multiple sclerosis for 10 years

Turning Point in Career: While working as a sales rep and attending night school at USC, a friend prompted him to check out career options in local government

Personal: Married, two grown children

By HOWARD FINE

Staff Reporter

For decades, Los Angeles City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie has been a fixture at City Hall, serving under three mayors and three full rotations of the City Council. But he was virtually unknown outside of local government circles until last month when he publicly blasted Mayor Richard Riordan and the Elected Charter Reform Commission for their proposals to put the budget analysis authority of his office under the mayor's office and give the mayor the power to fire city managers without council approval.

Comrie went on the offensive, writing letters to both charter reform commissions and local media, saying these proposals would bring financial mismanagement and corruption. Furthermore, he said they could put L.A. on the same path that led New York City to bankruptcy in the 1970s. After going public, Comrie said he received several calls of thanks from fellow city bureaucrats. As of late last week, the elected charter reform commission had not made any final decisions on the proposals.

Comrie also announced he would temporarily postpone his retirement, which was to have taken place in January, until the issues are resolved.

Comrie, 59, first came to L.A. City Hall in 1963 as an aide to then-Chief Administrative Officer Erwin Piper. In 1969, he left the city to direct the county's welfare system, a post he held until 1979, when he returned to the city to succeed Piper as the city's administrative officer.

Question: You've been in local government for the last 35 years. What's right with it and what's wrong?

Answer: Well, try bribing your building inspector in L.A. That is still the practice in many Eastern cities in this country and in many countries throughout the world, but it won't work in L.A.

City employees here have a reputation for being honest. People here tend to take honesty for granted. But honesty is essential. How many times have we heard about buildings collapsing in other places because the building codes that were on paper weren't enforced? You haven't seen that happen here.

Then you look at efficiency. Not a year goes by that our major departments do not get awards for doing their jobs efficiently. When other agencies around the country look for models, they more often than not turn to L.A. You don't hear many complaints about electric bills being too high in the city, or about the water system or about the sewer system, or about the fire department. That's about 80 percent to 90 percent of what this city does.

Q: So what's wrong with city government?

A: For one thing, there is a tremendous amount of turnover among city managers. In the last five years, the 17 city departments have had 45 managers. That's an incredible number. What it means is that you have no stability, no time to really implement things. A manager typically needs five to eight years to really understand how the department works and to implement changes. With managers changing every year or two, there simply isn't enough time to do anything. The moment they learn enough, they are out the door. It has become very difficult to do any long-term planning. It represents a massive lost opportunity.

That is one reason why I'm opposed to giving the mayor unilateral power to fire managers in the charter reform process. It would make this bad problem much worse and would give more power to the mayor's personal staff. In fact, I recently had two very well-respected department heads both of whom were recruited from other cities come to me and tell me that they would not have come here had the mayor had that power.

Q: Overall, you present a fairly positive view of city government. Yet the Valley and other parts of the city are trying to secede. How do you explain that?

A: This is a big city where your voice cannot be heard as easily as in smaller cities like Beverly Hills or San Marino. It's really a responsiveness issue: People want to be heard. We've tried to address that with the community councils concept. We need better communication back and forth, up and down the line. Some of the councils are already in existence in some council districts and they work fabulously. The main question now is whether those community councils should be elected or appointed.

As for secession, let me tell you, the secession movement is absolutely wrong. San Marino or Beverly Hills cannot build a port the size we have in Los Angeles. They cannot build an international airport. They cannot build a billion-dollar sewer system. They cannot build an electric system that serves millions of customers. You need a strong, large central government to do that long-term planning. If you break it into small pieces, then you have a lot of ineffective small pieces.

Q: You have come out in strong opposition to proposals to give the mayor power to fire department heads without approval from a majority of the City Council. Why?

A: Well, I must admit that it has a great ring to it publicly, but as a practical matter, it is not workable. Mayors are chief executives. They are elected based on their vision and their skills on selling that vision to the public and the City Council. But unlike a private CEO, who works his or her way up the organization through a series of management jobs with a lot of skills before they get to the top, mayors may or may not have any management skill whatsoever. They are hired for different skills. This is not a criticism of this particular mayor; we are setting a charter for the next 50 years.

The mayor can already fire city administrators without cause: That was all changed in 1995 to give him that power. The only check on that power is that he must get the approval of eight City Council members, which allows these decisions to be made out in the open and not behind closed doors. Otherwise, you get decisions being made that no one can review, which is exactly what happened in New York City in the 1970s.

Q: After 35 years in local government, do you have any favorite council members?

A: I have served 37 council members and three mayors. But I will not name favorites. Keeping this office neutral is absolutely crucial. I was asked by (Riordan advisor and Freeman Spogli & Co. partner) William Wardlaw to campaign for the mayor and I had to refuse because the city code expressly forbids me from taking a position.

Q: Critics say city officials are paid too much. What is your view?

A: I do not think that city officials are overpaid. In fact, many department heads are paid extremely modestly compared to the private sector. Look at L.A. Department of Water and Power chief David Freeman. His salary is about $200,000 a year. I know that the salaries of private utility chief executives run $1 million a year or more. And it's the same up and down the line of department managers. You can't set salaries too low, or else you are unable to attract top-quality people into city government.

Q: What attracted you to city government?

A: Thirty-five years ago, I was working as an industrial sales rep for Pacific Plate Glass Co. and was going to night school at USC, taking classes in accounting. I had a pretty good feel for how the company worked and was looking for opportunities once I graduated. I was really looking to work in a big organization, but at the time, there were not a whole lot of big corporate headquarters here. And I wanted to stay in L.A. because of the climate, the area and the people.

Then one of my friends got recruited to the county chief administrator's office. I talked to him for a long while and was able to take a look at what they did. I realized that is what I wanted to do. So I applied to both the county and the city administrative offices and the city offered a job first.

Q: You delayed your retirement until charter reform is further along. What are your plans once you leave office?

A: First, let me say that I am not planning to stay on indefinitely. I originally had planned to retire in January. But I want to stay on until the key decisions are made in the charter reform process. That will be in either February or March in order to get on the ballot in time for the April or June ballot. So I only plan to delay my retirement for a couple months.

As for my plans after retirement, I am really captivated by contemporary art and might like to do a little painting. I also like to collect and drive classic cars. In fact, my wife and I are going to take racing lessons. But most of all, I plan to spend time with my two children, both of whom are now in college.

Q: Any words of wisdom for your successor?

A: Well, first of all, this job never gets old or boring. There is always something new and exciting to come along. I mean, look what I've worked on in the last couple years: a new arena, getting NFL football back to L.A., expanding the police department, and helping to prepare the city's electric utility for deregulation.

I would also tell my successor that he or she must be flexible. You never have all the answers you need. I have seen issues where you could be dead certain that you had all the answers locked up and ready to go when you walk into a hearing. Then something comes up from a council member or the public that hadn't been thought of before and you have to figure out how to respond.

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