Eric Garcetti's Slow Start: Seven Months In, the Mayor Is in Search of an Agenda
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
Last fall, Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a new website that displays statistics about city operations. Putting out such information, he says, is the most exciting thing he can do as a leader — and the riskiest. He believes that it will ultimately revolutionize how the public interacts with City Hall. For now, though, the site doesn't seem to do much. Officially, it's still in "beta" mode.
That's a good way to describe the Garcetti administration as a whole. Seven months into Garcetti's term, he has yet to really launch. His head is swirling with ideas, but those ideas have not been distilled into an agenda. And when it comes to advancing new policies, his record is surprisingly thin.
By this point in their terms, Garcetti's two predecessors had already laid out the agendas that would define them and had taken steps toward implementing them. Villaraigosa had begun his effort to take control of the L.A. Unified School District and was laying the groundwork for plans to hire more cops and build the Westside subway. James Hahn had expanded after-school programs, announced a $100 million housing trust fund and, most controversially, fired LAPD Chief Bernard Parks.
Garcetti has done nothing so momentous. His biggest achievement so far is a new contract with Department of Water and Power workers, which freezes wages for three years. That's a genuine success, but aside from that — and with due respect to his performance website — it's hard to point to anything of great substance.
His agenda also is surprisingly hard to pin down. In a half-hour interview last week at his City Hall office, Garcetti defended his record but also argued that policy initiatives are overrated, saying he prefers to focus first on basic management.
"A new administration is about getting up and running. You can do things that might sound sexy — I mean, how did the school takeover thing work out for Antonio?" he said. "My first term won't be about fits and starts and an initiative of the week. It will be about long-lasting reform."
Garcetti campaigned as a "back-to-basics" mayor. It was a pledge to focus on efficient management of the city, and an implicit rebuke of Villaraigosa's undisciplined grandiosity.
But Garcetti also campaigned on big ideas. He promised to create 20,000 green jobs, dig a train tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass, eliminate a business tax that brings in 10 percent of the city's revenue, massively expand solar energy at the DWP and end chronic homelessness.
While he hasn't abandoned any of those ideas — the business tax phase-out will be included in his forthcoming budget — he hasn't put much emphasis on any of them, either, leaving the public to guess what his top priorities actually are.
In the course of the interview, Garcetti first downplayed the importance of policy initiatives, then rattled off a number of initiatives. The one he seems most excited about right now is a plan to hire 10,000 youths for summer jobs, which he called "huge and significant and extremely expensive and difficult to do."
But he resisted naming any of them as his top priorities — suggesting that would be simplistic and artificial.
"You can't do one. I wouldn't prioritize one over the other," he said. "I have the capacity in this office and the expectation of my team and this city not to focus on one thing."
Garcetti is still cobbling together his team, which may explain why more hasn't happened already. After a drawn-out search, he had found a chief information technology officer — a key position for his tech agenda. But just as he was filling that position, his new film czar, Tom Sherak, died of prostate cancer, leaving in limbo the mayor's plans to revive local film production.
The day before, Garcetti had installed a new general manager at the DWP. Meanwhile, interim directors are in charge of three other departments — transportation, fire and the Port of L.A. — after Garcetti removed Villaraigosa's picks.
As he begins work on his first budget, Garcetti's team has begun saying, "It's a marathon, not a sprint," which is a sign that things are moving slower than people expect. But Garcetti himself is satisfied: "They're definitely going at the pace I'd like them to."
Garcetti has identified four priority "outcomes" that will shape his budget: jobs, restoring and improving city services, public safety and sustainability. But he has not translated those values into a consistent policy agenda.
Late in the interview, Garcetti acquiesced a bit, agreeing to identify what he called "my top urgent and important priorities": improving the 311 customer-service system; reforming the DWP; improving Fire Department response times; economic development; and infrastructure projects, including a rail link to the airport and restoring the L.A. River.
"I'm limiting myself," he said, referring to a piece of paper, "because I have 10 that are here."
Garcetti evidently sees such prioritization as a phony exercise — driven more by the imperatives of journalism than those of government.
"When we communicate [with the press], we can certainly spin it like, 'OK, everybody talk about youth jobs,' " he said. "But as mayor I have a different leadership style, which is to simultaneously do 10,000 youth jobs, and reduce the business tax and do green jobs."
But none of these things are easy, and if his priorities are not pinned down, they can easily slide off the agenda. The Sepulveda Pass rail project once seemed like a major interest. Now Garcetti talks about it as something that may happen someday. He no longer mentions his green-jobs plan much, either, except when prompted.
As for communication with the press, Garcetti doesn't make much of an effort to focus media attention on any particular story. Indeed, if there's one thing that can safely be called "not a priority," it's communications. Garcetti is not one for press conferences, often going days without a public event. Yusef Robb, his communications director, is generally so uninterested in engaging with the media that the press corps has nicknamed him Useless Robb.
"You have to run the entire city, so I expect excellence across my organization," Garcetti said. "We can never communicate 5,000 stories. But I'm not here to communicate the good news stories. I'm actually here to improve the quality of life."
That may be another rebuke to Villaraigosa, who was widely seen as a show horse and a camera hog. But Garcetti's tack in the opposite direction means that often things that are important to him don't get covered.
To take one example, Garcetti may consider the youth-jobs program to be extremely significant, but evidently it was not significant enough to call a news conference or issue a press release.
If the communications office is on lockdown, though, it may also be because of a dearth of things to announce. Garcetti doesn't apologize for that. The important things, such as improving City Hall efficiencies, he says, "will never make a newspaper article."
"My job is to run this city," he said. "This city has to run well and I'll be damned if I don't spend my time here fixing what's wrong, bringing the right people in, making sure we have customer service and innovative government, so we jump-start the economy.
"But," he added, "we certainly will have as strong a base of initiatives as you've seen from any mayor."
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