Chick Making Most Of Power Granted to Controller's Position

Staff Reporter

For years, the office of L.A. City Controller was a backwater, producing occasional audits and reports but almost never making the headlines.

No more. In just over two years, City Controller Laura Chick has issued a stream of scathing audits, pushed city agencies to alter entrenched practices and pressed for sweeping citywide reforms. With her most recent audit of contracting practices at the city's airport agency, Chick has played a major role in setting the city's agenda and forcing other politicians, from the mayor on down, to react.

Some question Chick's motives, saying she's really using the powers of her office as a platform for political advancement. Indeed, she has said she would challenge Mayor James Hahn for his job next year "if drafted," though she later admitted this would be very unlikely.

Others say that in her drive to make headlines, Chick has jumped to erroneous conclusions, exaggerated problems and given departments too little time to adopt suggested changes. "What we're seeing is 'gotcha politics' replacing sound governance," one city commissioner groused last week.

Chick dismisses such criticism, saying it comes from departments that don't want to adopt her recommendations. "This comes from defensive auditees trying to spin the story," said Chick last week, just back from a four-day vacation to an island off the Mexican coast.

Stirring the pot

Chick's aggressiveness is what advocates of L.A.'s new city charter had in mind. Unlike her predecessors, Chick can now conduct performance audits of city agencies and more detailed management audits of the airport, harbor and water and power departments.

"The charter commissions really did intend for this to happen when they gave that office new powers," said Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University Fullerton, who headed one of two charter reform commissions. "It creates a lot of stress and conflict, but it's also generating potential reforms."

Chick has tested the limits of these new powers. Besides issuing audits, she's making recommendations for sweeping policy changes and pushing to force bureaucrats, commissioners and even other elected officials to rid the city of the perception of a "pay to play" government.

In the weeks since the airport audit, motions have been introduced in both the City Council and the City Ethics Commission to ban city commissioners from sitting in on staff contract negotiations and from fund raising for elected officials.

On Jan. 6, Hahn issued an executive order banning commissioners from participating in staff discussions of contracts. And last week, Department of Water & Power Commissioner Leland Wong resigned after allegations surfaced that he had improperly engaged in fund-raising activities.

"It's become so obvious that we need to change the way business is being done in the airport, harbor and water and power departments," Chick said. "Also, after the recall election, there's a critical mass of public opinion out there now that will no longer tolerate the 'business as usual' way of doing things."

Tuttle approves

Prior to Chick and the new charter, the controller's office was by far the weakest of the three citywide elected posts (the other two being the mayor and the city attorney). Its main function was to monitor the city's finances.

But when charter reform came in the late 1990s, then-City Controller Rick Tuttle saw an opportunity to augment the powers of the controller's office. Tuttle, who held the post for 16 years until he was termed out in 2001, supported Chick when she ran to replace him.

"What the controller as an elected official can bring to the table is sunshine, bringing audits and reports directly to the public," said Tuttle, who now runs the Dashew International Center for Students and Scholars at UCLA. "With these additional powers, the controller can bring in the council and the mayor, push things along and get changes made."

Elected to the City Council in 1993 as one of the first "term-limit babies," Chick had already been making a name for herself as chair of the high-profile public safety committee, overseeing the police department.

"I found her to be feisty, aggressive and personable," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who served with Chick for four years. "She was always speaking up on issues, framing them and focusing on how we could make things better."

But once voters passed the new charter in 1999, Chick put in for a switch to the audits and government efficiency committee.

"She began bringing in motions that were the same kinds of things that she's now doing as controller," said former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, now a consultant. "That's when I knew she was serious about running for controller."

With Tuttle's endorsement, Chick coasted to an easy election victory in 2001. She quickly launched into audits of the DWP, examining the agency's green power program, its expenditures for parties, entertainment events and sponsorships, and its contracting practices.

Right away, Chick met resistance. While the agency did make changes, such as setting up guidelines for sponsorships and improving its green power program, the reforms have not gone as far as she wanted.

Just last month, Chick took the DWP to task for proceeding with an 18 percent water rate hike without having implemented all of her recommended cost-saving reforms. "I'm not saying that a water rate increase is not needed, but I am saying this is putting the cart before the horse," she said.

Political considerations?

DWP Commission President Dominick Rubalcava has said that the board is reviewing Chick's audit and has implemented some of the reforms. While expressing a willingness to work with Chick, he criticized the way the controller's position is set up.

"The problem that exists has less to do with Laura Chick as a person than with the system," he said. "An elected official typically does not audit other government agencies. That sets up a system in which the person doing the audit has to be concerned about winning the next election. It raises a possible political motivation for every audit, and that's not the way it should work."

Chick dismissed the criticism, saying L.A. voters have repeatedly called for an elected city controller.

"Those people who are not happy about having to make changes because of my audits use this whole notion of 'it's all politics' to denigrate the audit's findings," she said. "But as an elected official, I can help move the recommended changes through the political process. Also, I'm directly accountable to the people. If they think I'm being too political, they can choose not to vote for me."

Tuttle maintains that the public release of audits forces the controller to address problems without exaggeration. "Everyone will be looking at the audits. If they don't stand up on their merits, that will be discovered rather quickly."

In the 30 months since she took office, Chick has examined the L.A. Visitors and Convention Bureau (now known as LA Inc.), the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., the Greater L.A. Zoo Association, the Port of Los Angeles, and most recently the Airports Department. Most of the audits resulted in significant reforms.

Nearly every audit has focused in one way or another on procedures surrounding the awarding and oversight of contracts. "We don't monitor our contracts well," Chick said.

While she's generally earned plaudits, her high-profile strategy carries risks. If she antagonizes Hahn and other powerful City Hall insiders too much, they could retaliate by cutting her budget.

"The risk is that you fight the good fight and do the hard-hitting audits and then those that you discomfit make an effort to reduce your budget," Tuttle said. "To that, my response is, set this threat aside and plow ahead."

The airport audit, in particular, bolstered longstanding perceptions of political patronage at the airport, homing in on allegations that airport commissioners especially Hahn ally Ted Stein were interfering by sitting in on staff meetings at which contract bids are reviewed.

Officials with Los Angeles World Airports have defended themselves, attacking what they called factual inaccuracies and its small sampling of 25 contracts out of 1,128 awarded during the review period.

Chick stands by the audit.

"The audit is clear, there is an environment at the airport ripe for potential abuse and conflict of interest," she said. "It would be my suggestion that airport management rethink their attempt at spinning the story and concentrate on actually addressing the many problems in their agency."

What's next? Chick said last week she is going to do follow-up audits this year of the airport, harbor and water and power departments.

"I realize that the biggest limitation of my office is that I cannot force the recommendations of the audits to be implemented," she said. "But there are all kinds of ways to put effective pressure on auditees to make this happen."

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