In bumpy economic times such as these, more people are looking for work while the job supply is shrinking or stagnating. Add to that metaphorical cocktail the current budget crisis and the obstacles facing Los Angeles CDD's new general manager are substantial. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Cliff Graves, General Manager of the Los Angeles Community Development Department, who assumed leadership of the department earlier this year.
What attracted you to this post of General Manager of Los Angeles' City Community Development Department?
Well, in a way, I'm coming full circle. I was at HUD in the 70's when the community development block grant was being formulated and, of course, that's one of the major programs in this department. So, it's interesting to see how it's evolved over the years and then be on the receiving end of all those regulations. So that was one attraction. Another one was that I was looking for something that was not a single project. The last few things I've done were focused projects, like the UC Merced campus and the UCSF Mission Bay project. CDD is a lot of little projects and transactions and I'd like the intellectual and professional challenge of trying to stay on top of lots of disparate activities.
You are coming to the department at a time when, obviously, everyone is tightening their belts. How do you size up the challenge in this fiscal environment of managing CDD?
Well, there are a couple of challenges. We have seen a reduction of our federal funding. As a result, we are downsizing a bit to take that into account. But the reduction in funds also forces us to focus on and develop better long-term strategies for what is important and where we can have the greatest impact. In that sense the reductions are forcing some needed improvements to the way we do business. We have about $700 million in budget authority and about 500 staff, so the obvious challenge for a manager is to keep communication flowing inside the department and get the various pieces of the organization to work together more smoothly. Again, while the pie was growing that was less of an issue than it is now. And of course, the mayor has dealt a fairly clear vision for the city in terms of where his priorities are, at least with regard to our programs. So, we're adapting the machinery to that as well.
Elaborate, please.. What priorities has the Mayor communicated to you and how might you restrict the scope of the department's focus and programmatic support?
His vision is really to match or to get the labor force in Los Angeles better qualified for the types of jobs being generated here. There's a very wide gap between the level of education and skills of a lot of the workforce and the kind of jobs being created. Something I didn't realize here was that you've really got two cities within Los Angeles. One is the highly skilled, highly educated population that's working in some of the flagship industries. Then you have a sizeable percentage of the population that doesn't have a high school education and there aren't any jobs being created for them. So the Mayor's priority is to more aggressively promote literacy among adults and prepare young people better for job training.
Now that's a far cry from planning and development, which is what I've been doing the last several years. But, the challenge is very real. Besides the schools, you need facilities for job training; you need to match business requirements to the training programs and a lot of that goes on in this department. With funds being scaled back, the mayor wants us to look at our services from the consumer standpoint, rather than the provider standpoint, and see if there are better ways we can mesh what we do to serve the people that are most in need. That also has its implications for facilities and infrastructure and working with other city and county agencies.
Let's follow that string. In terms of planning, how do you envision collaboratively taking advantage of joint-use facilities opportunities? Who manages the effort? How is boundary crossing the playing field of city departments incentivized?
Well, we've got a group of city departments from the CRA to Public Works taking a look at the plans that are out there for improvements of construction in targeted neighborhoods and seeing if we can't get some synergies out of it. You may have noticed the agreement that the mayor signed with the superintendent of LAUSD to put the resources of the redevelopment agency and the resources of the school district together for looking for joint-use and multi-purpose facilities. The mayor now wants us to expand that beyond the redevelopment agency to the other city departments. So that would involve Planning, CRA, Public Works and the Housing Department. In an organization as large as the city of LA, not to mention as diverse, that's not as easy as it sounds. But the mayor has made it a top priority.
Your background, in addition to your work in Merced, includes heading San Francisco's redevelopment agency. Can you compare the public management environment in San Francisco to what you've observed so far in Los Angeles?
Well, you can get your arms around San Francisco a lot easier than you can Los Angeles. The environment for redevelopment seems to be quite a bit different, and keep in mind, I'm new and I'm speaking as an observer, not as someone who's directly involved at CRA. But the CRA here is being asked to do a lot of different things around the city. Whereas in San Francisco, being a more finite piece of geography, we were able to really concentrate on a few key areas. And so I imagine that Bud Ovrom, the new head of CRA, has his hands full doing that-particularly at a time when they are not exactly swimming in cash. He's got a real challenge, both in terms of developing a long-term strategy and then righting the agency with regards to its finances. But, he seems to be a very well qualified person to do it.
You mentioned your prior work with HUD and the development of the CDBG program. Expand on the evolution of the program, how it started and where you see it now. Since you were there at the beginning, what is your perspective on the program?
The Nixon Administration brought a very business oriented approach to the delivery of services, particularly in their domestic programs. And one of the things that they found, and I was part of that, was that the federal government had incrementally inserted itself into very fine-grained decision making at the local level. The classic case would be the urban renewal program and some of the health programs and even in the area of manpower.
In 1972, the White House decided they were going to radically change the way that the federal government delivered resources and eliminate dozens, if not a 100 or more, categorical grant programs and consolidate them into a limited number of block grants. Each program then would encompass all of the things the categorical programs used to do, but it would be left to states, or in some cases cities, and counties to decide which of those actives made sense in those areas. And the role of the federal government was essentially to guarantee the funding and then audit the results, but not to get involved in individual transactions. This was really heresy in the federal system at that time.
There were going to be four programs, as I recall: (1) community development, which would encompass just about all of HUD's non-housing programs; (2) manpower, which would consolidate a lot of things in the department of labor; (3) transportation, and; (4) education. I was working on community development and the thinking at that time was to devolve the power to make decisions to the states and local governments.
Now the only two programs that actually made it through the congressional process were community development and the manpower program. The community development program was the cleanest of those and it's been interesting to see the stresses and strains on that program over the years. Different administrations have had different attitudes as to what the federal government's role should be in these areas. You are never free of regulations, but HUD has set one or two clear national objectives-affordable housing, job creation and elimination of blight-and left it to jurisdictions to decide how that fits in their area. Overall, I evaluate the program as being successful.
If there's one area where the legislation came out differently than anticipated is that the money for individual projects is released individually by HUD instead of simply having one check a year written to the local treasurers. But you can't have everything.
How effectively does Los Angeles pursue federal grant money? Can the City do better? What program opportunities afford the best chance for additional funding?
t's a little too early to tell, but you can always do better. As far as the programs that we operate at CDD, which are primarily CDBG and the Workforce Investment Act funds, the city has been quite aggressive in pursuing those and it's also been very aggressive in how those funds are used. Los Angeles takes advantage of the Section 108 loan authority in the CDBG program far more than most communities do. In other words, they can bundle and provide assistance for projects by borrowing against future CDBG allotments and that's a very creative way of marshalling the resources you need for critical projects.
The department has done some work with EDA in terms of projects and had its voice heard in the Workforce Investment Act reauthorization. One of the things I was asked to do when I took this job was to see if we could do more in the area of grantsmanship. Not so much in terms of the ongoing programs, but to do more demonstrations and experiments that might allow us tap into other federal and, in some cases, foundation resources.
What surprised you the most, after assuming your new role at CDD, about Los Angeles City government and the sucess of intergovernmental relations in the Southland?
The level of communication between the city and county at one level seems to be quite limited. But, what I've found is that the professionals in the city and county find ways to work together, regardless of the political environment. There's always a little tension between the two entities, but when it comes to certain issues like homelessness for example the city and the county joined a joint powers agency to manage all homeless programs throughout the county. The city and the county both contribute to this and they work off a common strategy.
In the area of economic development, there are bits and pieces of coordination. But, you it is true that in San Francisco, there is not a city and county, so you are not aware of that stress that most communities have to focus on. The other aspect of coming to Los Angeles that is unique is the sheer size of it, both geographically and in terms of populations. The idea that you can fit inside the geography of Los Angeles either five or six of the major cities of the United States and not have them touch each other is something that someone from the outside takes time to digest. If you look at South Los Angeles and you think of it as a community, well, it's an awfully big one-bigger than the city of Milwaukee.
Being able to stay focused and understand that your investment is going to make a difference in a relatively limited area-an area that in other cities would be quite huge-will continue to be the challenge for me.