August 1, 2001 - From the August, 2001 issue

Ron Deaton Opines On The Riordan Legacy & Hahn/Council Agenda

With over 30 years of service invested in the City of L.A., Ronald F. Deaton has seen the democratic process shine during its finest hours (read: the lasting legacy of his friend and colleague John Ferraro) and struggle during its darkest days (read: his much publicized and often tumultuous interactions with the Riordan administration). Because of that unparalleled experience and his knowledge of the inner-machinations of City Hall, his worth in this era of term limits is immeasurable. TPR was pleased to talk with the City's Chief Legislative Analyst about the Riordan years, what they meant for Los Angeles, what the newly elected representatives will have to deal with because of them and more generally where the City of L.A. is headed in the 21st Century.

Ron, reflect on the Riordan legacy from your position as Chief Legislative Analyst for the City of L.A. What do you see as the significant opportunities taken and missed over the last eight years?

The last eight years provided City Hall with a lot of energy and excitement. Unfortunately, a lot of that energy was lost to needless internal fighting between the City Council and the Mayor. That factor translates into a legacy of good intentions, but a lack of the ability to implement.

And what will dominate the agenda of this new L.A. Mayor, Controller, City Attorney and Council because of the Riordan legacy of inaction?

Clearly a top priority today is law enforcement-the public safety issues surrounding Rampart, the Police Protective League pressing for many changes, the deterioration of LAPD morale and the Consent Decree.

A second major issue, which so far has turned out to be a non-issue, is energy. We continue to ride high because of the City's current municipal utility structure, but there may come a day in the not-so-distant future when we may not be doing as well. We need to learn from this statewide energy crisis that we must always be looking ahead to what the next change in the volatile energy market might be.

Lastly, the issue of airport development, along with a number of smaller concerns throughout the city were started in an energetic manner but again not handled as well as they might have been. So they will still need to be dealt with by this new administration.

You mention airports. You said in a TPR interview back in October 1998, "LAX is a crucial economic engine for the region and the Mayor and the Council have to take into account that as they weigh the alternatives." That same statement could again be made today. Give us your sense of how that issue breaks down.

The statement still holds true. The Harbor and LAX are major economic engines for the region and have an enormous impact on trade and cargo, not merely in terms of the city's economy but in terms of the state, the nation and certain international markets. However, those issues have become clouded at least in part because of El Toro.

The strong NIMBY sentiment coming out of Orange County is causing a ripple effect throughout the region, particularly evident in regard to support for LAX expansion. Clearly a regional solution is needed, yet people in Orange County believe that the need for a great park like those in L.A., New York, San Diego and San Francisco, outweighs their responsibility to accept the great airport associated with each of those cities.

Charter reform and secession are two other issues that some would add to your above list. You said in a TPR interview back in October 1998, "Quite frankly I haven't seen either charter commission establish what's wrong with the current operations in the City, and then try to correct it with something in the Charter. Hence lots of changes are being suggested and lots of dividends are being attributed to doing those changes. But I still haven't seen documentation that those changes have any positive effect on city government." That was obviously said prior to the Charter Committee's final recommendation and subsequent public vote, but you still seem to share that same sentiment. Could you comment on the new Charter now that it is completely implemented?

The most noteworthy change made to the Charter was giving the Mayor a stronger role in controlling General Managers. General Managers can now be removed by the Mayor unless they can convince the City Council to schedule a hearing and have two-thirds of the Council vote to override the dismissal. A General Manager's tenure under this new Charter is not as certain as it used to be.

The other significant change was the implementation of a system of neighborhood councils. These Councils will hopefully provide a better mechanism for gleaning input from the citizens and improving our City's democratic process.

Lesser-known changes were made to the duties and reporting functions of the Chief Administrative Officer's position. The prior Mayor had basically taken a lot of the budget formulation into his own staff and while that's permitted under the new Charter, my understanding is that the budget will be developed by the CAO's office which is really the traditional way of charting the course of the City's budget.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of Charter reform, however. Time will be the only true judge.

Secession has been a dominating force over the last eight years. Despite the Charter's full implementation, the Valley, Hollywood and San Pedro/Wilmington are still clamoring for increased representation and threatening to secede. What's your perspective on how this issue plays out over the next year or two?

It appears that LAFCO's view is that they want to put this before the electorate. Whether that will include Hollywood and the Harbor, we don't know. But their intent is to have the citizens of L.A. at least vote on the Valley secession proposal next year.

With Area Planning Commissions being one-year-old and Neighborhood Councils facing the certification process, it has been suggested that the fifteen-member Council will be focused on neighborhoods and not on regional issues. What's your take on that? Is this going to change the dynamic and priorities of the Council?

Councilmembers have always had to strike a balance between local and regional issues. In the past, advocates for regional issues were often better organized. The new Neighborhood Council structure will allow for a clearer voice for more localized communities. I see these councils creating a more level playing field between regional and neighborhood issues.

With the State Budget having just been passed, I again go back to your comments in 1998 in which you said, "I thought that the State would only look to local government for fiscal resources when they were in financial difficulty. It appears that with one of the largest surplus increases in State revenues, the State would still reduce the vehicle licensing fee, which has been a local tax since the 1930s. It puts local governments in jeopardy with the loss of yet another tax." The current budget was clearly unfavorable to local government. I'm wondering what your concerns are now, and what are your predictions for Governor Davis and the Legislature, vis-à-vis Los Angeles.

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The impact that the backfill on the vehicle license fee had was an interesting component during last year's budget. And it was one that held that budget hostage for quite some time. But when all was said and done, there was no financial impact.

This year the issue was the power problem. It so dominated the scene that everything else got lost in the shuffle. This year's budget didn't have any bias against local government, there just wasn't any money left over for anything but the state requirements.

So looking forward, are you more optimistic? Obviously the Speakers' Commission on state-local government finance recommendations were not the topic of conversation. Is there any hope for fiscal reform?

Maybe I'm cynical, but after being involved in these issues for 25 years I have yet to see any changes. Every three or four years there's a new approach, a new commission or some suggestion that we need to make changes to the state-local fiscal structure. And while the people who are being placed on these commissions are serious-minded and sincere, they rarely come up with any new solutions.

Each year that goes by, there's less inertia to change and more to stay the same. Cities up and down the State are making more and more decisions based on a specific set of rules and therefore the quagmire blocking escape from this structure becomes more complex.

The issues you've just mentioned, combined with the election of a new Council President, have forced City Hall insiders to look to different ways of governing including the recent reorganization and consolidation of the Council's committee structure. Give us your prediction on how this will all play out.

At the urging of the new Council President, the City Council has adopted a new committee structure that includes the addition of the Education and Neighborhoods Committee. The concept parallels the new Charter's attempt to increase community participation and attempts to unify that by aiding LAUSD in the addressing of our city's growing school siting need. As it stands, that committee will play a large role in reaching out to a number of historically under represented areas throughout the City.

Another substantial change is the consolidation of Intergovernmental Relations Committee into the Rules Committee. Under the new Charter, the IGR function is the Mayor's primary role, not the Council's. As long as the Mayor and the Council agree on priorities, this approach will provide a strong voice for the City. If they differ however, we will face the same problems we had under the last administration.

The new Council seems to be approaching their responsibilities very collegially. But we are only a few months into their terms. What's the learning curve like? Can you comment on the nature and the personality of this new council?/

Their priorities reflect their personalities--young, bright and enthusiastic. They have been a pleasure to work with and I'm very optimistic for the next two years. With the addition of two more Councilmembers later this year and early next, I think we will truly have a good group of elected officials.

You obviously work for the entire Council but you deal directly with the Council President. One of the seats up for election is the seat that was held by John Ferraro before his passing. I wonder if you could comment on his tenure as Council President, the contributions he made, and your perspective on the ways he helped to improve local governance.

John Ferraro was our leader and everyone accepted him as such, even those who might not have agreed with him on many issues. It was his vision and his ability to get us to all work together that made many things possible. He truly "presided" over all of the major projects and efforts the City undertook. He was President of the L.A. City Council longer than any other person in City history. He was the "go to" person in City Hall to develop the consensus necessary to solve each crisis as it arose-with humor and teamwork, he would always got the job done.

He led Los Angeles over the last half of the 20th century through such issues as the Police Department Consent Decree, the Olympics, the Staples Arena and the Democratic National Convention and generally shaped the historic transformation of Los Angeles into a major world City.

Let's tie this together. We've talked about the effects that the Charter will have on Los Angeles, the region and the State, but what should we specifically be looking to over the next 3-6 months to see whether L.A. has truly overcome the roadblocks that may have been prevalent in the Riordan administration?

The future of the L.A. will depend on how the secession issue unfolds in LAFCO and how the City tackles the law enforcement issue.

LAX, the energy crisis, our relationship with DWP, Neighborhood Councils and housing are all major concerns, but secession and law enforcement issues are key. But it seems this Council and this Mayor really want to get their hands around all these matters and we will be actively searching for ideas on how to address them.

I assume that by the way you answer these questions you do not intend to take early retirement. Will you continue to be a positive force within City Hall?

It's difficult to imagine somebody who has 36 years invested in the City of Los Angeles being asked if he plans on taking early retirement. Notwithstanding, I'll probably stick around for awhile.

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