Fresh from his this month’s election victories including the passage of charter reform and the selection of his preferred candidate for a Board of Education spot Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan sat down last week with the Business Journal’s editorial staff.
Question: Only one in six registered voters even bothered to go to the polls to vote on the charter. Is that kind of apathy a cause for concern?
Answer: Life is too good here (laughing). I think also that people are very removed from government. I think that has a lot to do with the structure of government, with such diffusion of power among elected officials and bureaucrats. There is no accountability; nobody has real power over the bureaucrats. People feel they cannot make any real difference in government.
Hopefully if you have a structure that is more similar to other big cities, you will have much more interest by the voters.
Q: So you don’t think it’s anything endemic to the voters here, but rather a systemic problem that can be fixed with charter reform?
A: Well, somewhat fixed. Unfortunately, we’re having voter turnout problems throughout the country. People feel less and less connected to the government. If you go back to the old ways of government, when the wards and every little neighborhood were involved, it would be different. Not that I want to go to a ward system. But experts at UCLA, Harvard and Stanford say that as bad as that system was it brought people closer together.
Q: In New York and Chicago, you have very high-voltage personalities in public office. They galvanize people and motivate them to participate in government. Is there something about the leadership here that just doesn’t excite people?
A: I think it goes both ways. In New York, there are probably a couple hundred media people in City Hall at all times; here we have five or six. The Police Department alone in New York has 22 media people assigned to it. The mayors tend to be more characters and personalities and in-your-face types, which make for better media. I don’t think that type of leadership would be accepted here in Los Angeles.
I was with a big-city mayor a couple of years ago at a press conference out in a parking lot where some event had happened. One of the reporters asked a mean question to the mayor and he went up to the guy and grabbed him by the shirt collar and said, “If you ask me that again, I’m going to punch you in the nose!” I mean, do you think Dick Riordan could do that in L.A.? I’d like to, you know. So, does anyone have any tough questions? (laughter)
Q: Given that many members of the City Council opposed the charter reform measure, are you concerned about their enthusiasm for implementing it?
A: No. I’ve talked to the various leaders on the council and I think they are going to be cooperative. (But) it’s going to take a lot of hard work on my part, on the council’s part and on the city attorney’s part to do the job right.
Q: What role are you going to play in implementing the charter?
A: My secret weapon, (mayoral aide) Theresa Patzakis, is going to spend full-time working with the city attorney’s staff and council staff; and (Chief of Staff) Kelly Martin, who is a very superb transactional lawyer, will also be very involved.
I have talked to (council President) John Ferraro, and we’re going to host a dinner for my staff and the council, try to smoke a peace pipe. I believe the council has the best interests of the city at heart; I know I do. I think we can work this out.
Q: What areas are going to be the most challenging?
A: The main things are the additional power of heads of departments. One thing that has gotten lost a little bit is that the council no longer has power over contracting. I have no right to veto contracts; I can only veto ordinances, which is only about 1 percent of what they do. That’s why you have lobbyists all over the council. I think that’s going to be a huge change, especially when the council now has the practical power of influencing the heads of departments and middle-level bureaucrats to give consulting contracts to friends.
I think you are going to see less and less of that. I’ve been saying, only a little tongue-in-cheek, that lobbyists ought to start selling their Rolex watches and beach homes and get a job that’s productive.
Q: But won’t the lobbyists just be camped out in front of your door or the department heads’ doors?
A: You aren’t going to get rid of lobbyists completely. They already are at the department heads’ doors. They have tried to get through my door, but I won’t meet with them. The good thing about it is that what the mayor does is in the light of day. Right now, all these contracts are given out and nobody even knows they are given out. Even if you know they are given out, you don’t know who to blame.
But under the new charter, the authority is more focused. And the council does have the authority to override the mayor on a contract by a two-thirds vote. The new charter provides more of a check and a balance. It also means that you have to work with the council on this, since it doesn’t take away all their power. If a lobbyist’s client doesn’t get a contract with a certain commission, they will still be all over the council to try to get that two-thirds override.
Q: Are you concerned that implementing the new charter might drag on? Just look at the business tax; it must be somewhat disappointing seeing that go on for all these months
A: We’ll get there on the business tax. But what you’ve hit on is probably the main thing. It’s like merging the city and the county film offices and making them up-to-date and friendly to the most important industry in this town. It took a year and a half; it should have taken six weeks. So I think that you will find that under the new charter, things will happen much more quickly.
Another thing in the charter is the ability of the department heads to hire their top staff, making them exempt from civil service. We have it now, but it doesn’t work; the council controls it.
Q: Speaking of new powers, can you give us some sense of how you plan to use the new powers that the charter gives the mayor?
A: Well, a lot of my relatives will get contracts (laughter). But seriously, I’ve never even thought of it that way. I essentially will just go ahead and try to do the things that we’re doing now, but do them much more quickly and more responsibly. I’ve got the power to get them done.
Q: Some looked at charter reform as a way of heading off secession. Do you think the odds of the San Fernando Valley seceding are now less than they were before the vote?
A: I hate to look at it that way, like a game. But, certainly, if the charter had failed, it would have just played into the hands of the secessionists, as “This is another example of how the city of L.A. just doesn’t want to get its act together.” To that extent, it will help if we implement the charter. It will go a ways toward persuading the Valley and the rest of the city that we ought to stick together and make the entire city work.
We met with the secessionists Burt Boeckmann and Dave Fleming put them together and convinced all but one of the major leaders that the charter and secession are two different issues. I can’t predict where secession is going to go, but I think there are huge hurdles to get over (for the secessionists).
Q: On the education front, now that you’ve got your candidates elected to the LAUSD Board of Education, what happens next?
A: There is an axiom: In defeat and in victory, don’t get depressed and don’t get elated. Figure out what you do next. Just because we have people on the board doesn’t mean we’re going to magically turn this bureaucracy around.
You have the most bankrupt bureaucracy in the world there. I mean, everything they do there is wrong. Some time back, the Harold Williams group (a blue-ribbon panel of business, civic and education leaders that in February issued a blueprint for LAUSD reform) came out with 50 different items that should be looked at as goals in the schools. But none of these are going to happen until you restructure management.
Q: And how do you see that playing out now that you have a very different kind of board? And what would your unofficial role be in all this?
A: I won’t have any role at all. There are a lot of very bright people that they will seek advice from; hopefully I’m one of them. But they now have to keep their eye on going from point A to point B, not point A to point Z, where everyone wants them to go immediately. They have to get a strong management structure and empower Superintendent (Ruben) Zacarias and hold him accountable. Part of holding him accountable is the strength of the people that report to him, because he can’t do it all alone. He’s going to need something like 50 very strong people in the structure under him who are capable of implementing these 50 magic solutions.
Q: What are your priorities for the remainder of your term?
A: My top priority is to create a quality city for everybody, particularly the poor. We have done a really poor job in the poor areas of this city.
If a person has no hope of being part of the middle class, two things happen: First of all, our economy is denied the skilled workforce. Right now, we can’t fill a lot of high-tech jobs. Secondly, hopeless persons are very likely to turn to crime and drugs. So even the most selfish person should want to (improve the plight of the poor).
Then you have all the other quality-of-life things in the neighborhoods, like getting rid of the abandoned buildings, graffiti, illegal dumping, gangs, and prostitutes and drug dealers. This is all about creating an atmosphere in the neighborhoods where people are proud to be there and businesses will come out of self-interest.
Q: That sounds much like your original platform. Are any of these numerous issues at the top of your agenda now?
A: Quality-of-life issues in the neighborhoods are the No. 1 priority. But there is also the infrastructure side. The port and the airport must be upgraded to make us competitive in the next century. There are also the Staples (Center) arena, the NFL team, the GM site in the Valley, and so many more projects.