By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
You can’t blame the Mayor’s Office for wanting to keep Triple A in L.A. Not only does the Auto Club employ hundreds, but it’s a signature company that embodies the very car culture of Southern California, while occupying a landmark building just south of downtown. So when the Auto Club decided to transfer 250 employees to Costa Mesa, Mayor Riordan’s crack business team swung into action, both to woo AAA and to refill its partially emptied corridors.
The ideas flowed fast. The vacated space could become a center for biomedical industry. Or a hub for multimedia firms. And the entire Auto Club site would be a featured project of Genesis LA, the mayor’s new, major economic initiative, which was to launch in early 1999 under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo.
There was just one problem. No one told Triple A. Auto Club executives claim they read about Mayor Riordan’s economic-development initiative — and their special role in it — in the newspaper. They weren’t mad, just puzzled.
To be fair, the Auto Club had made noises in past years about moving its headquarters to Costa Mesa. But in 1999, the plan was just to consolidate from four buildings to three at its Figueroa Street campus, a 1923 masterpiece of Spanish-mission-style architecture. The Auto Club rented out its excess office space and forgot all about Genesis LA.
But Genesis did not forget the Auto Club. There it is, listed among the “Genesis LA Success Stories.” According to the current Genesis LA press packet, Genesis and the Mayor’s Los Angeles Business Team “signed transactions that represent” no less than 275 “actual jobs with people working today” at the Auto Club site. And in an interview this month, the head of Genesis referred to that site as a “completed” project.
Such misleading exaggeration is one of the most striking features of Genesis LA, a well-intentioned, fledgling effort to improve the L.A. economy. Genesis has been portrayed as a bullet point in Mayor Riordan’s legacy. It’s also become a springboard for the rising career of Deputy Mayor Delgadillo, currently a candidate for city attorney running against City Councilman Michael Feuer.
A Weekly investigation found that Genesis LA is more potential than reality — and provides an excellent window into the style, achievements and excesses of Delgadillo, who inaugurated the Genesis project from within the Mayor’s Office. In little more than two years, Delgadillo has cajoled and even strong-armed the city bureaucracy to cut deals that might indeed help Los Angeles, but that certainly benefit developers and businesses favored by Delgadillo and Mayor Riordan.
In one episode, Delgadillo pushed the Department of Water and Power to ignore its open-bidding policies and sell a piece of “surplus” property directly to a businessman who has supported his campaign as well as the mayor’s education philanthropy. An assortment of developers have given money to Delgadillo’s campaign, many of whom must rely on his staff for help getting city subsidies and other assistance. Delgadillo himself solicited some of these contributions, according to sources who spoke off the record. Through Genesis, he also has developed common cause with billboard companies, which are strongly backing his campaign for the office of city attorney, which is charged with enforcing billboard ordinances. (See accompanying story.)
This business-first rĂ©sumĂ© does not equate well with the job of city attorney, in the view of one veteran City Hall bureaucrat, who requested anonymity: “I don’t think there are really bad motives here, but Rocky Delgadillo is a walking conflict of interest, and we’ve haven’t had that in a city attorney. He is someone who has a bias to let the private sector bloom. But if the City Attorney’s Office doesn’t play watchdog, who will? The city attorney deals with whether the city’s interests are being protected. That’s not an advocacy role, that’s an umpire’s role. The issue is not whether he’s a good guy or did some good. It’s that the job he’s running for isn’t the kind of job he’s been auditioning for.”
The prospects of Genesis LA itself are a question apart. “Genesis and the mayor’s Business Team have been trying to fill a gap that exists in city government,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a nonprofit that focuses on the needs of the working poor. “There’s been one program here and one program there, but no way to pull it all together. But the deal-making approach makes things even less accountable. Genesis is set up outside the city in order to capture city resources. It’s almost a structure that can’t be held accountable.”
At its best, Genesis could be just the catalyst needed to link public and private dollars in the service of reshaping the city’s depressed areas. Genesis was formed with the idea that it could be an economic force for years to come. But so far, the project is so closely linked to the personalities and governing styles of Riordan and Delgadillo, that it’s difficult to say whether Genesis can or even should persist as a force in the next administration. The next mayor of Los Angeles faces an early decision on whether to continue Genesis, and in what form.