Major L.A. Departments In Flux Without Leaders

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

With the resignation of port executive director Larry Keller, all three of L.A.'s revenue-generating agencies Los Angeles World Airports, the Harbor Department and the Department of Water & Power are waiting for permanent bosses.

The airport department has been without an executive director since Lydia Kennard stepped down in 2003. DWP General Manager David Wiggs has been on medical leave since spring as he recovers from cancer treatment. And with Keller's departure, Chief Operating Officer Bruce Seaton was appointed to a six-month term as the port's interim executive director.

"It's unprecedented in the city's modern history that all three proprietary departments are without permanent leaders at the same time," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

The situation isn't necessarily a cause for alarm. Planes are still flying in and out of LAX, and ships are still unloading their cargo at the Port of L.A. The lights are on.

But the lack of leadership has had an impact on issues ranging from the proposed rate hike at DWP to progress on approval of the airport's new master plan.

"It's no accident that these vacancies are occurring," Guerra said. "The mission of the proprietary departments is changing drastically. Gone is the old way of doing things, where you could have technocrats running clearly autonomous departments using strict administration principles. The departments today have to deal with politics and concerns from the community, the City Council, the state and the federal government."

Leadership challenge

Each agency faces major challenges, including ongoing investigations into allegations of a "pay-to-play" environment in city contracting.

"There's no question that the investigations are a cloud hanging over all these departments," said Jack Driscoll, former Personnel Department general manager and former executive director of LAWA. "At the very least, any candidate for any of these posts is going to want to know a whole lot more about what's going on. And while they themselves wouldn't need to be worried about being targets, they must be able to show that they can deal with the fallout from the investigations."

Driscoll said the investigations might even dissuade some candidates from applying.

"But that might not be a bad thing," he said. "If a candidate feels they would not be able to deal with these investigations, then that would raise some question about their political skills in handling other controversial issues."

The issue is complicated because Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn faces a heated re-election battle. His opponents, in fact, are citing the vacancies as evidence of Hahn's failings.

"Clearly, as the mayor, you're responsible for providing leadership for those general managers," said Councilman Bernard Parks, the ex-police chief who is now challenging Hahn in next March's primary. "If the ongoing corruption investigation has caused any one of these managers to choose to leave, that's a very unfortunate side effect of these investigations."

Hahn officials deny that the investigations are a factor.

"Out of 43 departments, it's not unusual to have some vacancies happen at the same time," said Doane Liu, the deputy mayor in charge of overseeing policy at the three departments. "Each of these departures has a unique set of circumstances; they are not linked."

At the airport, Kennard stepped down after repeated run-ins with then-Airport Commission President Ted Stein. Since then Kim Day who was deputy director of project and facilities development has been interim executive director. Liu said executive search firm Ralph Andersen & Associates has submitted an initial list of 75 candidates including Day to the mayor for consideration. A final slate could go to the airport commission in the next month or so, he said.

At the DWP, longtime power engineer Henry Martinez is acting general manager until Wiggs is deemed physically fit to return, which Liu said could be in late October or early November.

And at the port, Liu said the groundwork is being laid to hire a firm to conduct a "global search" for Keller's permanent replacement, which the mayor hopes will be completed within six months.

Interim roles

All three departments face their own set of challenges.

In the case of the $3 billion airport master plan, a compromise from the mayor's more ambitious $9 billion proposal, there is general consensus that Day has the technical expertise, but lacks the political savvy in dealing with substantial opposition from residents in El Segundo, Westchester and other nearby communities.

"Think about how much more effective the discussion of LAX would be if there was a leader at LAX who on their own could make the public case for modernization," Guerra said. "All you have to do is look at how William Mulholland made the DWP's case for more water supplies or how Clifton Moore sold the city, the state, the federal government and the public on a need for an expanded airport back in the 1950s. Whatever Day's qualifications are, the very fact that she's an interim manager prevents her from taking that role."

Shortly after the DWP's Wiggs went on leave, then-chief operating officer Frank Salas was named acting general manager. Salas had long been a powerful behind-the-scenes political force, but he was pushed out of that post amid questions about his role in approving a $3 million-a-year contract with public relations giant Fleishman-Hillard Inc. City Controller Laura Chick blasted the agency for its lack of oversight; since then, the FBI has launched its own investigation into Fleishman's billing practices.

With Salas out of the picture and an obscure power engineer in charge of the agency's operations, the DWP was ill-equipped to deal with the public backlash to a proposed 18 percent water rate hike. By the time the proposal hit the City Council early this summer, it was effectively dead; instead, the council approved a more modest 11 percent hike.

Amid the turmoil, DWP Commission President Dominic Rubalcava stepped in to assume a more prominent role in managing the agency. It was Rubalcava who accompanied Hahn on a much-publicized "listening tour" of the Owens Valley two months ago.

Whether the port's ability to deal with its complex set of issues is impacted by Keller's departure remains to be seen. One difference: Keller himself was a lightning rod for residents and environmentalists who say the port has done too little to address pollution concerns.

"This represents a huge change in how the port is run and the mayor now wants to use the opportunity to improve the senior management," Liu said.

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