In office, Riordan was criticized for having a short attention span, but it was really the attention span of a venture capitalist. He would brainstorm a program, carefully select a leader to see it through, then move on to the next idea. It worked with his Business Team, and with most other programs that remained confined to his own office or were sent outside of City Hall entirely. He went to the voters, with his own money, to get authorization for a charter-reform commission to remake city government. He went to the voters, with his own money, to throw out half the school board — which didn’t even come under his auspices as mayor.
Initiatives that required him to work within the city bureaucracy rarely went as well. He was frustrated, for example, by a simple effort to eliminate the Social Services Department, whose sole purpose was to regulate bingo. Bigger efforts, like renovating City Hall, getting more police officers on the street, revamping Los Angeles International Airport, fell short. He was exasperated most by a government structure that, in his view, spread authority and accountability so thin that no single person could ever be held to answer for a program’s success or failure.
With charter reform, Riordan envisioned a city structured much like those of the mayors he admired and envied, the New York of Rudy Giuliani, the Chicago of Richard Daley. The top bureaucrat, the city administrative officer, would be eliminated. The city attorney would be appointed by the mayor and report directly to him. The department chiefs would become his Cabinet. Instead, he got neighborhood councils, and he got the title of the city administrative officer changed. But as soon as Riordan was gone, the City Council changed it back.
So what lasting change did Riordan bring to Los Angeles? There are more parks, libraries and police officers, but those could be credited to an improving economy. He focused attention on the school board and made sure that the Walt Disney Concert Hall was built, but he could have done that — probably would have done that — without being mayor.
Greig Smith, the top staffer for Councilman Hal Bernson during Riordan’s tenure and now a councilman, said Riordan re-created the city bureaucracy. Although it’s still a work in progress, Smith said, “He made it much more constituent service–oriented.”
Raphael Sonenshein, the Cal State Fullerton political-science professor who headed an appointed charter-reform panel that was meant to counter Riordan’s elected one, said Riordan “knit together downtown business people one more time, gave downtown one more stab” at civic string pulling before an era, still in formation, of decentralized decision making.
Mayor Riordan may be remembered most for his seeming detachment from the issues facing his city, like when he greeted hunger strikers at City Hall while gnawing on a hamburger, or cycled across France during a crippling transit strike here. Or when he pronounced the Police Department’s self-review of its handling of the Rampart corruption case as the most searing analysis by any agency of itself “in the history of mankind.”
But voters loved Riordan for his cheerfulness and his cheerleading, and they loved the fact that he was willing to criticize city government. They seemed to love the fact that he didn’t need the job, wouldn’t take the salary, didn’t care if no one in City Hall would talk to him. He established, or re-established, the legacy of the wealthy outsider as the savior of a bumbling government.
As much as voters loved him, most lifers in City Hall were relieved to see him go. But Julie Butcher, general manager of the union that represents the garbage workers and most of the other employees whose jobs Riordan threatened, said she was tempted to send him flowers on his way out with a card thanking him for being the best organizer the union ever had.
“Many of the improvements you see at City Hall today,” Butcher said, “like departments working together, employee work standards, incentives, are all due to him. They were defensive measures, done in spite of him, to fend off his [privatization] efforts. Or maybe it’s what he intended to happen all along. In which case he’s a lot smarter than anyone realized.”