By DANIEL TAUB
In Los Angeles government circles, there’s plenty of room at the top with Help Wanted signs being hung out for people to lead the schools, police department, transportation network, utilities and other public services.
In fact, it’s difficult to find a major government agency in Los Angeles today that has a permanent leader at the helm.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been without a permanent chief executive officer since December and the selection of a new head could be months away.
The Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education this month will be interviewing candidates to replace Supervisor Sid Thompson, who is leaving his post in June.
And the Police Commission is looking for two new police chiefs one to serve as interim chief after Willie Williams leaves his post, and one to serve as chief for at least the next five years.
That’s not all there are also vacancies for executive director of the Los Angeles Harbor Department and for general manager of the Department of Water and Power.
What’s happening here? Why can’t L.A. keep any of its top government executives?
Politicians, government experts and others interviewed say that the Help Wanted trend is in part due to the increasing amounts of stress and pressure for top-level positions.
“The satisfaction that a lot of our top professional staff is getting is beginning to be outweighed by the pressures,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who serves on the MTA board and is participating in the search for a new chief executive officer.
Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles City Councilman, said the demands on key public officials have simply gotten tougher than when he entered politics two decades ago.
“Most people when they came into public life whether elected or as a career came to it with hopes of building, not tearing down, of growing, not entrenching,” Yaroslavsky said.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate School, said top appointed government leaders today have less money with which to work, undergo greater media scrutiny and make less money in comparison to similar positions in the private sector.
“Governing isn’t a very pleasant job these days,” she said. “It has to do with the lack of psychic rewards.”
Clearly, stress and pressure tell part of the story for the current job openings:
– Former MTA chief Joseph Drew left in January after less than a year on the job, saying that infighting on the MTA board made it impossible for him to do an effective job.
– Sid Thompson announced his retirement as Los Angeles schools superintendent last year amid increasing criticism and scrutiny from Board of Education members.
– Although Police Chief Williams is not leaving voluntarily his contract was not renewed he has had a stormy relationship with Mayor Richard Riordan, Police Commissioners and key City Council members for the past four years.
There are other reasons for the vacancies, of course. Ezunial Burts left the Harbor Department’s top position to head up the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, and former DWP General Manager William McCarley left the department last month over a salary dispute.
Phil Henning, assistant general manager of the city’s Personnel Department, said those vacancies as well as a half dozen others in top positions in various city departments cannot be explained by any one factor.
“I don’t detect a pattern in there,” Henning said. “Just some things came together at the same time that don’t appear to be related to one another.”
There are also vacancies in top positions at the Department of Public Works, the Department of Buildings and Safety and the Human Relations Commission, Henning said. Some of the vacancies can be chalked up to city heads reaching retirement age, he said.
But Henning conceded that the number of top position vacancies about 10 is unusual.
“I’d say it’s an extraordinarily high number in a short time frame,” he said.
The greater number of vacancies has led the Personnel Department which usually has two employees working full time on searching for candidates for top city positions to contract out more work to private executive search firms than usual.
A nationwide search by an outside firm can cost the city anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000. The search for a new DWP general manager, for example, is costing the city between $70,000 and $75,000, Henning said.
Because of the high number of recent top-level vacancies, the Personnel Department has also put out a request for proposals for executive search firms who want to be on a short list of companies the city can turn to when a search is needed.
Despite the high number of vacancies in high-level positions in the city, political analyst Bebitch Jeffe does not see anything unique in L.A.’s political climate.
She noted that New York City has had troubles keeping a police commissioner and that President Clinton’s cabinet has had numerous changes over the last four years.
“It has to do, quite frankly, with the aggressiveness of the media and the lack of ability for a public person to have a private life,” she said.
But Regina Birdsell, executive director of the New Los Angeles Marketing Partnership, chalked up the vacancies to a changing political environment and economy in L.A.
“It’s a new day and the type of skills required are different. That means different kinds of people are going to have to fill those roles,” said Birdsell, whose city-funded organization is charged with promoting L.A. as a desirable place to do business.
Birdsell said that new people in top positions could bring a much-needed fresh vision to L.A.
“There isn’t anywhere else in the world that has gone through so much so quickly, and not everyone is cut out for that environment,” she said. “What we need are forward-thinking people who are ready to capitalize on this window of opportunity we’re in right now.”