Mayor Richard Riordan has announced an ambitious agenda for his second term, including implementation of a new business tax system and boosting community economic improvement plans.
There’s just one question: Who will the mayor have running the show?
Two key aides will be leaving this month Deputy Mayors Gary Mendoza and Steve Sugerman, who handled economic development and communications, respectively. They are just the latest in a long series of departures in the Riordan administration.
Of more concern, according to City Council members, former mayoral aides and city government observers, is the mayor’s long-standing practice of delegating key roles to trusted advisers outside City Hall.
Chief among those are Bill Wardlaw, a Freeman, Spogli Inc. attorney and close friend of Riordan’s, and Mike Keeley, the mayor’s former chief operating officer.
“I think the sense in City Hall is that no significant decision is made without the acquiescence of Keeley and Wardlaw,” said Councilman Michael Feuer.
“I think it’s important that top advisers be in a position to work most effectively with City Council members,” Feuer said. “I don’t think Wardlaw has a good sense of that. There’s just too much distance there physically and otherwise in day-to-day life in City Hall.”
Other council members and their aides say that outside control of the mayor’s office has left them unclear as to who they should deal with on any given issue.
“I’m not sure anyone’s in charge,” said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. “There are, of course, some people who claim Wardlaw’s in charge of the mayor’s office, but we ordinary City Council members don’t know.”
Galanter said she copes with the situation by going directly to the top.
“It doesn’t work by going through channels,” she said. “It works by me going to the mayor’s office and saying this is Councilwoman Galanter. And they find him and he calls me back.”
Feuer said that dealing with the mayor’s staff can be problematic, citing the mixed signals he said he got from the mayor’s office last fall when he proposed a compromise to avoid having two separate charter reform commissions.
“First one signal was sent and then, because it was not real clear who was in charge of this decision, another signal was sent,” Feuer said. “To me it seemed to be that on Day One there was support and then on the next day there was no support.”
A week after his second-term inauguration, Riordan was out of town on vacation and unavailable for comment. But staff members disputed claims that there is confusion about who is running the mayor’s office.
“I think our office organization and structure is very clear, and I have not noticed any shyness on the part of anyone, if there is any hesitation, to call me,” said Robin Kramer, Riordan’s chief of staff.
Kramer said that the core strategy group in the mayor’s office is comprised of Rocky Delgadillo, Mendoza’s replacement; Kelly Martin, deputy mayor for policy and finance; Chris O’Donnell, budget and strategic planning director; Stephanie Bradfield, deputy mayor for community and government affairs; and herself.
But Steve Soboroff, a senior adviser to the mayor, acknowledged that it is Riordan’s style to enlist a wide variety of people for projects based on their experience and abilities even if it means using people from the outside.
“Every single issue has its own personality and each issue has its own team,” Soboroff said. “You basically have to create different teams to help with different issues. What Riordan wants to do is surround himself with people both inside and outside (the mayor’s office).”
Soboroff, who is cited by many as one of the chief decision-makers in the mayor’s office, is a prime example of an outsider who implements policy.
Although he has an office down the hall from Riordan’s in City Hall, Soboroff is a full-time real estate broker with offices in Santa Monica and is not on the mayor’s payroll. Nevertheless, Soboroff has, among other roles, been Riordan’s point man for bringing a professional football team to Los Angeles and on the building of a new sports arena in downtown L.A.
Keeley is also cited by many as a chief influence, although he does not have an office at City Hall. He was forced to resign from the mayor’s office last year after turning over a confidential city attorney’s office memo to attorneys on the opposing side of a contract dispute with the city.
Still, he has remained an adviser to the mayor. Most visibly, he played a lead role in Riordan’s effort earlier this year to elect a 15-member commission to rewrite the city’s 72-year-old charter.
But Keeley disputed claims that he has a strong influence on other decisions made in the mayor’s office.
“That’s just crazy,” Keeley said. “I have minimal involvement. I continue to play a minor role in charter reform issues and other minor issues from time to time, but overall my influence is minimal.”
Wardlaw, a longtime business partner of Riordan’s who not only steered his 1993 campaign, but also President Clinton’s 1992 California campaign, did not return calls for comment.
Sugerman, however, said that “90 percent” of strategic planning in the mayor’s office is done by the mayor’s staff, not by such advisers as Wardlaw.
“I don’t think he does as much as people think he does,” Sugerman said, but added that he did consult with Wardlaw on a regular basis during his time in the mayor’s office.
Council members said that problems caused by Riordan’s reliance on outside advisers are exasperated by the revolving door in the mayor’s office itself.
Kramer is the office’s third chief of staff after the departure of Bill Ouchi, now a professor at UCLA, and Keeley, with whom Kramer shared the running of the office.
None of the Riordan’s deputy mayors have been with him from the beginning of his first term, and lower-level staffers have repeatedly left the office over the past four years, including this month’s departure of Cathy Stansfield, economic development marketing director.
City officials and political analysts also say that the hodgepodge of the mayor’s office has resulted in a lack of strong vision for the next four years a sharp break from Riordan’s specific first-term goals of increasing the Los Angeles Police Department by 3,000 officers and easing the bureaucracy of permitting and licensing for businesses in L.A.
The mayor’s inaugural speech primarily focused on improving public safety, a goal many feel has lost steam with a dropping crime rate, and improving the city’s public schools, something over which the City Charter gives the mayor little direct control.
“I think his focus on education and children is very near and dear to his heart and it’s something the mayor does not have any control over,” said Xandra Kayden, president of the L.A. chapter of the League of Women Voters and an adjunct professor at UCLA. “I think again it shows his lack of real involvement with city government and what city government does and how it functions.”
Former Assemblyman Richard Katz said he expects Riordan over the next year to be primarily occupied with making changes at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, whose board he now chairs and less concerned with making the kind of changes to the bureaucracy of City Hall that he promised at the beginning of his first term.
“He found that moving the bureaucracy was even harder than he thought it would be and he thought it was pretty hard to begin with,” Katz said.