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Year-end Scorecard

Photo by Jack Gould

Some historians insist that the odd thing about century changes is how few really cosmic events seem to happen in years ending in double-zeros — like 1700, 1800 or even 1900. In modern times, they say, such years are notably bereft of comets, plagues, invasions, revolutions. What with the Rampart disaster and the new city charter’s July 1 advent, I’m not sure you could say that about this year in our fair city. Next year and beyond, however, really is a millennium in Los Angeles governance: More than half the city’s elected officials leave office in 2001. Two years later, the rest will be gone. That is a Promethean hunk of passing scene — there’s never before been that much local-governmental officialdom-transition here in so short a span. At the same time, the city’s government has changed — due both to last year’s new charter and to the more recent political evolution of the city’s own power structure. Two major differences will become widely apparent in the months to come. So now is a good time to take note of them.

For one thing, there’s a very different balance of power at City Hall. The 2-year-old easy explanation of this has been that the City Council is now weaker, the mayor stronger, all because of that (evil, in the opinion of the current council majority) doggone new charter. But then something happened to challenge this assumption. The council suddenly found itself forced by the circumstances of history to push the federal LAPD consent decree down the mayor’s throat. And with this action — which also forced the mayor to turn around on the issue — there came a new, collective institutional understanding. Which was that even if a council member could no longer directly harass a general manager into putting up a new stoplight, that member could have, in concert with the other members, a far more powerful role in running Los Angeles: This was setting policy for the entire city. When you think about it, there really hadn’t been any official policy-setting agency under the charter’s old system. This was the city government’s inherent problem. City policy used to be something that was generally cobbled together behind closed doors with the consensus of the mayor, the more powerful council members, and the downtown lobbyists and power-brokers. That this crucial power instead goes directly to the city’s elected representatives is a tremendous change, intended by the charter commissioners to address generations of complaints about the way the city has been run. Now it remains to be seen how a very different City Council will use this power. But it’s there for the taking and will be hard to ignore.

The other welcome big change is the newly empowered function of the Controller’s Office. Due both to the initiative of incumbent Rick Tuttle and certain charter changes, in the future the controller will not merely be the elected person who counts the beans and signs the paychecks: He’s becoming the city’s own inspector general. With a larger staff, and a taut internal reorganization conducted under his long-serving chief deputy, Tim Lynch, Tuttle’s agency now cranks out detailed audits at what seems like one per day. If the media can only keep up with this output, Angelenos are going to have a much clearer idea about what’s really going on, and what’s wrong, in their government — another opening of the process. Because this basic power, which used to reside in the faceless appointed bureaucracy known as the City Administrative Office, is now in the hands of an elected, accountable official. But the Controller’s Office’s greatest new authority remains untested — this is the power to initiate and do performance audits of any and all city agencies. Former Charter Commission director Rafael Sonnenshein calls this new duty “a sleeping power.” But its mere existence will likely keep the big-three proprietary departments — Airports, DWP, Harbor — on a tighter leash. This authority could, however, be used even to audit the LAPD’s doings or the Mayor’s Office itself, in times of crisis and corruption — such as occurred, so notoriously, during the reign of the opprobrious Mayor Frank Shaw in 1936. Both of these governmental innovations are going to make a difference in the coming year, whoever is elected to run the city. This is the virtue of new faces: “There just won’t be as many people around who remember the old system,” Sonnenshein says. “We won’t be talking about the ‘new charter’ anymore. It’ll just be the charter, the status quo.” A new status quo, with a new accountability to the voters that this city’s government has shamelessly lacked since its 1781 foundation. Perhaps it’s about time?

Meanwhile, just three blocks east of City Hall, this county’s governmental process, with its five-member board regulating the basic functions of a 10-million-population political entity, remains stuck somewhere before the middle of the 20th century. Among the primeval-culture indicators of recent months were the board’s flat refusal to give the county’s home-health-care providers the full state-mandated raise that every other county in California managed to come up with. So were the neutering and/or defeat of varying measures to provide a larger, more broadly representative Board of Supervisors — and term limits for the board members. So was the re-election of three incumbent board members without any opposition whatsoever. It turned out that no one in that huge, 6 million population of three supervisorial districts felt he or she could afford to assail the massy fiscal bulwarks of the officeholders. This, my friends, is not democracy. Yet our county government seems to be virtually reform-proof. It took talk of San Fernando Valley secession to bring about the new Los Angeles City Charter. What would be the equivalent spur to bring charter-reform to Los Angeles County? For decades, ad-hoc state agencies have fruitlessly worked toward such reform without producing anything useful. Maybe secession talk would help move things forward. Santa Clarita County, anyone?

Down in the Tunnels

Back when aggravated city officials couldn’t think of a more credible way of assailing critical Los Angeles controller audits, they used to call Rick Tuttle a publicity hound. Certainly — and this may or may not be a good thing — no one could say the same thing about the Metropolitan Transportation Agency’s Arthur Sinai. He seems to be doing a better job than most of us might have expected in terms of riding herd on that recalcitrant agency, without encouraging much publicity regarding his efforts. In any case, one of Sinai’s most recent audits gives a critical view of what one might call the dark underside of the MTA’s recent success with its now-popular Valley-to-Downtown subway route. It turns out that many of those sleek new Red Line cars were well into the warranty period before being placed into service. What essentially resulted was that by last February 17, only 32 of the 82 MTA Red Line cars were ready for service. Through that month, only 56 percent of the cars were in service. This wasn’t so bad as long as the line was not running the full distance to North Hollywood. But it became a problem with the June opening of the full-length line. The key actor here, according to Sinai’s report, was that the cars — possibly because the MTA saved money up front this way — didn’t come with a full operating guarantee that they would pass a test intended to cover a simulated 10 hours of operations. This “burn-in test” was the equivalent of about 400 miles of service. A lot of cars manufactured by Breda of Italy were breaking down far more than they should have by industry standards, Sinai said. Many of these cars ended up sitting idle while their warranties on other problems ran out, Sinai alleges. Sinai also claims that LTK Engineering, the private firm which MTA hired to inspect the cars, “had not developed [formal, written] policies and procedures” adequate to the task. Charles Stark of the MTA’s Construction Department, which (perhaps oddly) oversees rail-car acceptance, responded that many of the problems were typical of all new rail vehicles. And he stressed that having a “burn-in” provision would have raised the initial cost. I’m okay with that response. But the MTA is now in the process of taking on a whole new fleet of German-made rail cars for its light-rail lines. So the question is, will that ramshackle agency be able to learn from its experience with the Breda cars?


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