Maybe it was simply that in the end, she had to fight her way into a job she‘d planned to walk into — unchallenged — in this year’s election. But Laura Chick came out swinging and won big. Now, Los Angeles‘ new controller has managed to land some hard punches in her first 100 days on the job.
Even if she had, quite reluctantly, to pay out $7,500 to former councilman and City Hall scapegrace-in-chief Richard Alatorre for what he may or may not have done for the Los Angeles DWP before her election. She had spoken out harshly against this consulting contract that Dick Riordan apparently contrived as a farewell boon to Alatorre, who was facing house arrest after a tax-evasion plea bargain. Chick vowed not to pay at first. But, ”The City Attorney’s Office said we had to,“ Chick said in an interview in her no-longer-new corner office that she‘s personalized into something of a small arts-and-crafts museum. No hard feelings, either. Rocky Delgadillo is the new city attorney, and the Alatorre deal happened under his predecessor, now-Mayor James Hahn. But the law of contracts is the law.
That aside, however, Chick, long one of the tougher members of the City Council, has moved into the shoes of her worthy predecessor, Rick Tuttle, the first and (probably) last four-term controller in city history. It’s a specialized job, being controller. The controller needs enough PR savvy to be heard in the media. That‘s because, often, this is the only way to make the others in City Hall listen. But he or she also has to be careful not to overdo it.
Over his 16 years, often via his media-wise assistant, Tim Lynch, Tuttle was terrific at filling reporters’ notebooks with well-explicated reports of the city‘s various departmental failings. But the media’s delight was usually the bureaucracy‘s rage: Tuttle, they said, just wanted to get his name in the papers. What they really minded, though, was that their own names were in the news too, along with his.
Now, after hesitation, Chick seems to be moving in the same direction, with what she terms a difference. ”We want to help city departments work toward logical, doable improvements,“ she says.
Brave words. But this is harder than it sounds. In general, city departments fall into two groups: those that heed controller audits and those that do not. The ones that disdain such free advice — they’ve included the LAPD, the Community Redevelopment Agency and the Department of Housing — keep having similar and recurring problems. Those departments that take the controller‘s suggestions (as the Department of Animal Control did under its recently ousted head, Dan Knapp) tend to stay out of trouble. Those in the first category, of course, usually insist that they have nothing to learn from the bean counters. Remember Bernie Parks’ rejection of a Tuttle recommendation for better evidence-locker security, even as Rafael Perez walked out the door of that very locker with all that cocaine?
”The problem is the old one of turf warfare,“ Chick says. Ideally, she says, each department would be as aware as she is about the need for sound management. ”Ideally, I‘d like to put all our auditors out of business,“ she jokes.
This won’t happen soon, as recent audits of Housing and the Department of Water and Power, another favorite old departmental reprobate, indicate. The Housing report found that department way behind on its frequency of inspections of low-income apartments. That‘s pretty important if you live and raise children in such places, even as L.A. housing gets scarcer and ever more expensive. In the past, however, this department’s been better at complaining about bad audits than remedying their causes.
The recent DWP study found our favorite public utility to be remiss in collecting nearly $29 million from its customers as of the first of the year. The study also found that, under Hahn, the City Attorney‘s Office also hadn’t been doing its share to help collect such accounts due.
But the cooperation level with the current city attorney shows promise. Delgadillo said he‘d help turn out details on one recently audited city-related agency that hasn’t quite been the soul of concord with Chick‘s office: the Los Angeles Police Relief Association (LAPRA). An October outside audit by Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates strongly recommended that LAPRA ”immediately take corrective action by developing policies and procedures for its key business processes, hiring qualified and experienced managers, and training all employees.“ The 82-year-old semiprivate LAPD insurance association, the auditors found, was overpaid nearly $1.4 million by the city over the past seven years; some or all of this overpayment may have gone on to recipients who, because they had retired or been fired from the department, were not entitled to it. Now LAPRA could face city-attorney subpoena action to open what it has, so far, kept closed from Chick.
Chick says that the new city charter’s greater accountability of departments to the mayor means that her reports can help a manager figure out how to look better in a mayoral review — if he or she takes the advice.
How to persuade them to do so? Well, Chick says, her experience on the council may help her get that body more involved ”in helping us all to solve these problems.“ If she can manage that, managers will have 15 fewer elected shoulders to cry on. And that many more reasons to straighten their finances.