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Credibility Chasm 

What is the bottom line with J. Paul Brownridge?

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
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It is the normal policy of this newspaper that its contributors not respond at length to critical letters to the editor. In the case of a letter from a taxpayer-salaried top city official denying his own demonstrated incompetence, however, such response is seriously warranted.

J. Paul Brownridge is, at the moment, still the six-figure-salaried treasurer of the city of Los Angeles. In his letter to the editor last week, Brownridge took serious exception to a column I wrote last month regarding his reported plans to depart city employment. I basically said his self-announced departure was good news on the basis of his past and present performance. He called me a liar.

One thing we both can agree on: Someone is indeed not telling the truth. Here’s what is in dispute. According to Brownridge’s letter, he isn’t really resigning: "There has been no ‘resignation notice,’" he writes. Might I refer him to his own news release of January 15, in which he stated on city letterhead that ". . . J. Paul Brownridge [has] announced plans to step down after serving eight years as one of the city’s top finance officers"? Is he saying this particular document isn’t a resignation notice, or is he saying that it was not released with his authority? This "resignation notice" was top news in virtually every local newspaper from the Los Angeles Times to the Watts Times. Brownridge certainly didn’t protest the reportage of his retirement then. Whom is he trying to kid now?

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In claiming in his letter to be an exemplary manager of city finances, Brownridge overlooks one undisputed fact: After a full eight years on the job, his superiors granted him a below-average personnel evaluation. According to published reports he never disputed, with 1 as the top score and 5 as the bottom, Brownridge scored a big 4. As I recall the language of such city Personnel Department evaluations from my own brief tenure in government employ, this meant that Brownridge hit the grouping that is labeled: "Needs much improvement." This rating does not very well accord with Brownridge’s claim that "there is nothing substandard about me personally or professionally." Personally, Brownridge may be a swell guy. Professionally, he was in such deep trouble that — on the basis of his official ‘D’ rating — he was awarded a pay cut instead of an annual raise.

Brownridge further attempts, in his letter, to gloss over his widely observed early difficulties in his job. "There was no money ‘lost’ in 1992," says Brownridge, purporting that the $20-plus-million budget shortfall which I noted took place that year was, in reality, invented by then–council finance chair Zev Yaroslavsky, as part of his "bid for mayor in 1993." Does anyone else recall that bid? Yaroslavsky wasn’t even listed as a primary candidate that year.

In the strictest sense, I must admit that Brownridge is right on one detail of this sad early episode. That money was not all "lost" in 1992. According to the independent report of the city’s contract auditor, R.J. Miranda & Co., the deficit occurred over a slightly longer period. It started with an $8 million loss in fiscal year 1991-92, with additional, separate $8 million and $9.5 million shortfalls over the first half of fiscal year 1992-93. As of November 1992, that was a total reported unforeseen budgetary deficit of $25.5 million. As Councilman Richard Alatorre then put it, that "was not exactly a small disparity."

At the time, Brownridge, who had estimated the shortfall as around $21.4 million, said, "In this environment, I’m well advised to accept the more conservative" — that is, the larger — "estimate." Now, nearly seven years after this frank admission, he is blithely denying there "was any money lost."

In his 1992 report on the shortfall to the full City Council, Miranda & Co. manager David Connelly blamed Brownridge’s faulty procedures for the treasurer’s shortfalls and for his further difficulties in tracking the city’s investment interest. Connelly said that the immediate cause of the $25.5 million shortfall was Brownridge’s prolonged and repeated delay in transferring incoming revenues to interest-bearing accounts — a transfer that is one of the treasurer’s fundamental official responsibilities. Brownridge, as I noted earlier, at that time blamed this delay on the loss of a single, part-time position in his office.

I’ll leave aside Brownridge’s barmy further claim in his letter to have sparked the new charter’s fiscal-reform proposals. Except to note that most of the news reports on this particular revision credit the reform to a long period of negotiations among both charter commissions, the Controller’s Office and mayoral staff.

What’s most incredible of all of his assertions in his letter is that Brownridge not only denies he ever said he’d resign, but states further that he "may stay for a couple more years." Judging from the deep sigh of relief that filled City Hall after Brownridge’s now-recanted January resignation proclamation, this informal suggestion that he’ll be sticking around until 2001 will be very unwelcome news to most city officials. I strongly recommend that the treasurer do himself a big favor and change his fickle mind yet again.

The Actual Number

Last month, I here stated that the January qualification of 12 candidates to run for the soon-to-be-vacant 14th District council seat provided the largest field of candidates for a single local office since 1969. Not so, said 6th District Councilwoman Ruth Galanter. Galanter recalls that there were 18 qualified 10th District council candidates in 1987 — the year she herself was first elected to the council.

Correction noted. But let’s not forget that the 10th District voters still wound up electing themselves Nate Holden. We can certainly hope the 14th District voters will do better by themselves.

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