By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
As Los Angeles suffered with an unemployment rate approaching 14 percent, far higher than the national average, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spent early December in Europe. Villaraigosa used the trip to showcase his green agenda on the international stage at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen
There, he praised his struggling Clean Trucks program, aimed at upgrading older trucks that serve the port, and he boasted of his modest program, initiated with former President Bill Clinton, to retrofit conventional street lamps with LED bulbs. He also found time to call home to Pasadena-based radio station KPCC to advocate a more bike-friendly city.
Villaraigosa’s staff generated a press release — one of five chronicling his three-day, 5,000-jet-miles Copenhagen quickie — about an agreement between the Community Redevelopment Agency in Los Angeles and a green center in Berlin. The idea would build on the Los Angeles redevelopment agency’s Cleantech Manufacturing Center, launched in September 2008 on land near downtown known as a “brownfield” — 20 acres contaminated by industrial pollution.
The redevelopment agency envisions a sprawling industrial complex of forward-looking factories and businesses on the largely abandoned land along the Los Angeles River that might one day put Southern California on the green-tech map. In Copenhagen, Villaraigosa touted the Cleantech center as “a world-class model that combines sustainability with economic development,” and announced that Berlin and Los Angeles would share “best practices” to promote the economy in both cities.
Absent from the mayor’s release was any mention of the visionary Community Redevelopment Agency chief, executive director Cecilia V. Estolano, who created the foundation for the ideas the mayor was pushing during his European trip.
Estolano had transformed an agency notorious for using eminent domain to pursue top-down projects that ignored the communities it claimed to be fixing. Under her, the department became modernized and gained respect. Thought to be a better manager and smarter than the mayor, she was so well-regarded that the Obama administration tried to woo her away.
Yet just a few weeks before Villaraigosa used Estolano’s ideas to promote Los Angeles — and himself — in Copenhagen, sources say Villaraigosa’s administration secretly forced her out of her job, using the occasion of a petty dustup.
The mayor insists and Estolano initially claimed that she left voluntarily. But sources told the Weekly that she was pushed out.
Documents obtained by the Weekly show that Estolano was let go after questioning a decision to move the redevelopment agency offices to a new location. Estolano fought the move at first. She eventually changed her mind but by then, a decision to oust her had been made.
The records show that on November 3, Estolano e-mailed her immediate supervisor, Bud Ovrom, and another top aide to Villaraigosa, Jay Carson, stating that she would see them later that day — and mentioning the proposed CRA headquarters move. Within hours of that meeting, Estolano faxed Mayor Villaraigosa a “resignation” letter.
The Los Angeles Times has reported that the afternoon Estolano resigned, “someone in the mayor’s office” spoke to CRA Commissioner Alejandro Ortiz — a mayoral political appointee — about Estolano’s work. Although the agency is somewhat independent from City Hall, in that Villaraigosa cannot directly fire Estolano, the mayor names the seven commissioners to its board, and those seven political appointees had the power to fire Estolano.
Carson, Ovrom and Villaraigosa declined to comment to the Weekly. Estolano did not return L.A. Weekly’s phone calls.
The plan Estolano had opposed was to more or less merge the CRA with the city’s long-troubled and less well-known Community Development Department. The two agencies’ budget and financing divisions, among others, would share floor space. But the change would likely have a negative effect on the CRA, which supporters of Estolano say she had reformed into a focused, action-oriented staff.
E-mails reveal that Estolano strongly disagreed with the move. She said the agency should focus on creating jobs in a time of recession and didn’t need the distraction of moving.
Her argument grew heated enough with Ovrom — then a deputy mayor but now general manager of the Building and Safety Department — that she threatened to resign on October 15, documents obtained by the Weekly show.
By the time of the November 3 meeting, she had acquiesced to the move — and stated as much in an e-mail to her bosses at City Hall that morning.
That night, she was out of a job.
Her departure has many shaking their heads. “Cecilia put ‘community’ back into community redevelopment and I say that as a community activist,” says Laurie Goldman, who sits on the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “She made the CRA human for the very first time in my memory.”
Adds Mott Smith, who has been on both sides of the political fence as a developer and a policy consultant, “I don’t know anybody who thought, ‘Oh Cecilia, she’s just trying to advance this agenda or that agenda.’ She was actually trying to do good for the city. As far as I can tell, she wasn’t beholden to any special interest or any crazy ideology — she was just good at running the agency.”
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