NC WATCH-The comments on my “Rear View Mirror” article last week were mostly positive. There is always that group that needs to find fault with everything governments do and everything that politicians say.
One of the really thoughtful comments came from Rick Cole, LA Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovations. Since he is the guy that initially puts the budget together and is not beholden to voters—(he is appointed … not elected) I thought it would be interesting to hear first hand if we are going to hell in a wheelbarrow … or can we now look forward to getting things done?
We sat down over the weekend and I got to ask the questions. The “Cliff” notes on the answer are: we are not going to hell in a wheelbarrow; all our problems are solvable BUT there are no quick fixes.
For those of you not familiar with Rick Cole, he is rather an anomaly. He is a former Mayor and City Councilman for Pasadena and former City manager for Ventura and Azusa. He neither contributed to Mayor Garcetti’s campaign nor knew our Mayor before his appointment. He has won several awards for excellence in government.
Since I like to be semi-prepared for an interview I went to check out his office’s website. It doesn’t exist! Since he doesn’t keep a low profile (his Twitter handle is “AngelenoRick”). I asked why such an important part of our local government is not so “transparent.”
He explained that Budget and Innovations are simply part of the Mayor’s office which maintains a website at www.LAMayor.org. His office doesn’t publicize a formal division of responsibilities since they all work for the Mayor.
His job as Deputy Mayor is to oversee the budget; technological innovation; sustainability issues; and performance measurement Citywide. On behalf of the Mayor he also oversees the departments of Finance; Information Technology; Personnel; City Clerk and General Services.
If you are expecting a detailed analysis of our City’s finances and how we are going to find the money to repair our infrastructure this article will disappoint you. I had asked in last week’s article why, since he was in charge of Budget and Innovations, he couldn’t come up with an “innovative” way to find some money without an increase in sales tax or adding to the property taxes.
Let’s start by giving his answer to the question in my article:
“I think your column was fair -- and earnest. I too wish there were an ‘innovative’ way to find the four or five billion dollars needed to catch up on deferred streets and sidewalks (not to mention the need to rebuild them as cleaner, greener ‘complete’ streets.) But there isn't a painless solution.
“What I do think is possible is for Los Angeles city government to be innovative to get our operating budget in order without raising taxes. Currently we have a little over $5 billion to spend a year – but it would cost nearly $6 billion to run the government as it is currently structured. So during the recession, we bridged that gap by doing things that over time are ‘penny wise and pound foolish.’ We’ve drastically reduced training, equipment replacement and routine preventative maintenance on our public facilities – like streets and sidewalks. That ‘balanced’ the budget, but it isn’t sustainable over the long haul.”
“I think we can re-design city government to work on what we take in and do it sustainably,” Cole insisted. “The trouble is we've been doing it hand to mouth for so long that the hole we've dug ourselves is pretty deep. It's not just our streets and sidewalks that need fixing. It's our parks, bridges, public buildings, technology systems, etc.”
“I know that citizens are frustrated that we find ourselves in this hole – but remember how difficult it is to cut services when income falls,” Cole continued. “Voters are fine with cutting programs they don’t value – but in a city as vast and diverse as Los Angeles, it is hard to get consensus on what we can reduce or eliminate, so we’ve limped along trying to do more than we could actually afford to accomplish, hoping that a recovering economy would get us back to ‘normal.’”
“It's like the personal and political idiocy you often hear, even from intelligent people. It goes like this: If we have money to (fight a war in Iraq, build new prisons, give politicians raises etc.) then we surely have money to (lower class size in elementary schools, clean bathrooms in parks etc.) In fact, the money we spent on the things people don't like- means we have LESS money to spend on things people do like.
“That's where we are now. The money city government spent is, well… spent! So if we want to fix our streets and sidewalks we can complain that ‘politicians’ spent prior years money on something else. But let’s keep in mind these are the same politicians we elected by majority vote of those who bothered to cast ballots – and the voters are just as reluctant as the politicians they elect to make hard choices. Clearly trying to find someone to blame for past spending won't cause that money to magically reappear.”
He commented that the passing of Proposition 13 has come back to haunt us. Cole noted that many critics point to City pay, benefits and pensions. Yes, he agreed, City employees will have to contribute more to their healthcare and pensions in the future to achieve fiscal sustainability. But he called for more fundamental reform of how the City is managed.
He quoted a joke supposedly made by Pope John 23 (recently granted sainthood) who when asked how many people work at the Vatican, replied … “About half”.
The overly rigid Civil Service system unfortunately makes it very difficult to discipline or discharge those who don’t pull their weight. But the biggest deficiency is that managers have not been held accountable. Mayor Garcetti has instituted the annual reviews of Department heads called for in the City Charter. That’s the first step toward accountability – and Cole is applying the same approach to managing budgets. “Performance budgeting” ties the allocation of dollars to achieving measurable results for the citizens.
My favorite question is, “If you could wave a magic wand and make any change in running this City, what would it be?” Cole replied without hesitation, “Changing people’s attitudes – so people all across Los Angeles see the opportunity to partner with the Mayor and city government to create a greater city.”
Cole maintains that the City’s current personnel system is “state of the art – for 1939” (when the current system was instituted – as a reform to fight widespread corruption.) He argues that jobs have changed and the need for different kinds of knowledge and talents today are very different from when the City devised its hiring formulae of standardized written tests. Cole noted that a recent hire that graduated at the top of his training class had actually scored in the lowest tier of passing scores on the written exam.
“When people get promoted primarily on the basis of seniority,” Cole noted, “they may not have the necessary managerial skills. Especially because due to budget cuts the City doesn’t do systematic managerial training. That just perpetuates the challenge since the untrained supervisors can’t pass on needed skills to the ones that will in turn follow them. And of course the system favors people already in the system, so we can’t turn to outsiders to address the deficiency.”
We discussed how “change” is the most difficult thing for people to accept. In a City like Los Angeles change just can’t come from the politicians. It must have grass roots efforts. That point was proven when the Neighborhood Councils (NC) lobbied for a DWP Ratepayer Advocate. They also helped rescind the City Council’s motion to put a half- cent sales tax increase on both the June and November ballot. Those on the extreme right or left may grab the spotlight but they don’t have the power to make the changes. Only, when ordinary people get involved to do extraordinary things- do real changes take place.
Cole said the NC’s and the grass roots work they were doing in their individual neighborhoods impressed him. He intends to work closely with the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates (NCBA) starting this month.
There has been some tension between the Mayor’s office and the BA’s. For the last two years of the Villaraigosa Administration, the BA’s helped organize a Budget survey, which was sent to stakeholders. Three years ago they received 10,000 replies, the next year a little less than 5,000. They subsequently found out that nothing was done with the surveys. They don’t even know if the answers were compiled.
When volunteers take on a tough assignment and then find out their work was for naught … it shows a lack of respect for their efforts. The Mayor’s office has said that timing was off and that the surveys were sent too late. Instead of the surveys the Mayor held a series of Town Halls all around the City and asked the audience to select the items they felt were most important for the City to include in the Budget. The turnout was great but the consensus was never made public.
Cole is starting the budget meetings now and the NC’s at the July meetings will appoint the new Budget Advocates. This way he is hopeful that there can be more input into the 2015-2016 City budget.
We know that real change is evolutionary … not revolutionary. As Cole said, this City and its Citizens have stepped away from making the hard decisions. He is optimistic that the problems can be resolved but not with short term fixes.
There is an apt quote from Vincent Lombardi who said “Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
That is our challenge!
(Denyse Selesnick is a contributor to CityWatch covering activities, policies and foibles in NC Land. She is Co-Chair of the Program Committee for the LA Neighborhood Congress September 20, and a former officer and Board member of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council. She can be reached at DenyseSelesnick@yahoo.com)
Vol 12 Issue 51
Pub: June 24, 2014