July 1, 2003 - From the July, 2003 issue

TPR's Orientation Interview Of New LA Councilman Greig Smith

Term limits have remade the look and feel of Los Angeles' City Council. July marked the turnover of four seats around the horseshoe, ushering out the old with the new. Yet, in terms of experience in state and local government,the new LA City Council is one of the most experienced ever. Among these new members is former Deputy to Councilmember Hal Bernson, Greig Smith of the 12th District. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Councilmember Greig Smith, in which he discusses his agenda for the 12th District and the city as a whole, as well as his approach to leading his constituency in the San Fernando Valley in this post-secession political environment.


Greig Smith

Greig, please give our readers a sense, beyond the boundaries of your west valley council district, of what will be at the top of your Council office agenda.

We have a lot of local issues we would like to tackle, but on a more regional level, two things are at the top of the agenda. One is dealing with the budget. On the first day I took office, we were begging Sacramento not to cut into our local budget anymore. Cities are going to be wrestling with budget constraints that are artificially placed on us by Sacramento, making it very hard for the new councilmembers to develop an agenda because resources are going to be limited. The first order of business is to wrestle with the budget constraints foisted upon us by Sacramento and how to get through the rest of the year with the money we have.

The second item will be successfully developing and implementing the programs we want to do without having the resources to do them. One of the things I'm very interested in, and I've already talked to the Mayor about it, is bringing some efficiency to the Planning Department, which I perceive to be very inefficient and costly for local businesses.

If we can create efficiencies on the local government side of the equation, then we will be able to free up money for other priorities as well as provide a better service to the city. For the first year, we're going to be struggling with the money we have and how we make what we have more efficient and work better.

Councilman, for decades Valleyite activists hav e pitted Valley needs against Los Angeles City Hall interests. While you're a new councilperson, you have long experience with the workings of 200 N. Broadway and with issues of concern to the Valley. Has the "Valley's" distrust of City Hall been mitigated by the failure of secession?

Not entirely. This was shown when the Mayor issued his first glance proposal for the city and the Valley got 9% of the city's grants when it is entitled to about 25% of the grants. So, it's a matter of rethinking how we do things. To that end, the Valley now has five full councilmembers, rather than four, and also we have a number of districts with jurisdictions that spill into the Valley. So, the Valley has more of a voice on the City Council.

Second, the five members now representing the Valley are working hard to be a unified voice for the Valley, something that never existed before. As I said in my inaugural address at the district, we in the Valley have to be cognizant of the fact that we are a part of the city of Los Angeles. What's good for other parts of the city affect the Valley. And, what's good for the Valley affects the rest of the city. We have to start thinking less parochially and focus more on the city as a whole.

How, if at all, has the adoption of a new City Charter -- with provisions for neighborhood councils and area planning commissions -- affected how a city councilmember approaches his/her responsibility? What's changed governmentally, if anything, from past city practice?

We're still trying to figure all that out, quite frankly. I am a big believer in neighborhood councils. The problem is, they are not structured properly in the city of Los Angeles. Under the charter, they are advisory only, and they want to be more than advisory. I want them to be more advisory, but their specific role has yet to be defined. So we're still in the experimental stage on what this new democracy is going to look like and that's going to take some time to work itself out.

Another outcome of the new charter that we still are trying to get our heads around is the devolution of some powers to the Mayor's office that the Council used to have. I'm referring to the interface between constituents and general managers and how to handle complaints. We are still working out how to coordinate the efforts of the mayor's staff and the Council staffs so that we don't countermand each other by doing two things at the same time that may not be in concert. So, we've brought together these working cabinets in each region of the city where the mayor and the Council staffs work together to define community issues and create strategies on how to attack them as a group. We're not all clicking on all cylinders yet. But, we hope to have the kinks worked out within the next couple of years.

All politics is local, so let's get back to your council district- the 12th. What are the issues that demand your attention?

When I was campaigning, I used to start out in the morning talking about crime and police issues. By the end of the day and late in the evening, people primarily wanted to talk about traffic. I think the traffic just wears you down over the course of the day.

Even though crime is beginning to go down, it is a big issue still. The issue of slow response times is huge in the San Fernando Valley. This always has been an issue because we have very large police divisions compared to downtown, which are very small. For instance, the Devonshire division is 67 square miles and the downtown Rampart divisions are about 7 square miles. Yet, you have more police officers in Rampart than you have in Devonshire. So, response time has become a very important issue.

Our new chief admitted the other day he really was unaware that this was an issue. In New York, they don't look at response times because the city's compact geography does not create such a problem. However, it's an issue for us and I'm going to talk about it with the chief.

Another significant local issue is transportation. The loss of money to the 101-corridor is a huge problem for the San Fernando Valley as a whole. In my district in particular, we want to see some streamlined transportation corridors and an acceleration in transportation planning. We're probably 20-to-30 years behind the eight ball in transportation planning.

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Elaborate then on the failure of the Valley's political leadership re the 101 corridor widening. What does it suggest about our region's ability to improve mobility?

For the entire valley, that 101-corridor is essential for moving through the Valley, particularly the South Valley, because it backs up all over the place. Everybody uses that corridor sometime or another and the loss of that state money and a united leadership is a problem. No one can find a unified voice to say, "Here's what we're going to do and we just have to go forward and do it."

Every time a proposal goes forward, some of the leadership falters, saying, "Oh, my neighborhood doesn't like that, that's not the right plan, etc." We've got to find a unified voice and that's one of the things the five of us councilmembers in the Valley have agreed to -- finding a plan that we can all live with and beginning to promote it. With some dedicated leadership, we can get the money we need to go forward.

Let's turn to the new L.A. City Council. Every council takes on an identity of its own. What is likely to be this Council's persona? It's defining characteristics as a legislative body?

I'm really excited about this new group. Unlike the state Legislature, you have the entire new class of councilmembers coming in with tremendous experience in government, whether it be at the state or local level. Antonio Villaraigosa and Tony Cardenas come in with state legislative backgrounds. When we went to Sacramento last week, they got into doors we normally wouldn't get into as easily. They can talk on a one-to-one basis with former colleagues. That's going to bring great value to us in an area in which we've been quite weak.

Then, we have myself and Bernard Parks, who have tremendous experience in city government. There is a real team of people here who do not need to learn government. It's probably one of the most experienced groups to come into the Council, quite frankly. I'm very excited about the potential.

And there's the current leadership on the Council, many of whom, like myself, were chief deputies -- Jan Perry, Ed Reyes, Cindy Miscikowski, Tom Labonge, and now me. It's just a tremendous amount of people with a tremendous background in local government.

So far, we get along very well. Everything has been very smooth, everybody wants to work together, everybody wants to attack the problems as a group rather than individually. My sense was that the Council in the 1990's featured a group of individuals who had their own agendas. With this group, everyone wants to work together and find solutions as a group.

And the Council's relationship with city general and department managers? What can you tell us about the quality of the city's general managers and how their responsibilities have changed under the charter? Will the City be able to retain and attract the most talented people to these positions of responsibility?

There are two issues. First, our general managers are average sometimes. We haven't gotten the best we can get. Under the new system, the mayor has the ability to fire with a 2/3 vote of the Council. That has put a lot of fear in the general managers to produce, and that's a good thing. They're not protected; they are accountable and they have to produce. If a manager isn't cutting it, we need to find someone who can do the job.

Second, city government does not pay market-rate salaries, despite what the Daily News may say. By paying significantly less than the private sector, recruiting top talent is a challenge. The city may pay $200,000 to a general manager who can make upwards of $500,000 on the outside. So it becomes hard to attract people from the private sector into the public sector because the money isn't always there. One of the things going for the city of Los Angeles is that it does pay more than most cities. So, we can compete on that level. But, it's tough to compete with the private sector.

Lastly, let's address how the City Council is covered by the media and your actions communicated to your constituencies and the public at large. How successful is the Council in getting its work and messages out to the voters?

Well, that's a tough question. For the most part, we have two outlets in the Los Angeles basin, the electronic and print media. Television and radio don't cover local government in detail. On the print side, the Los Angeles Times, which is owned by the Chicago Tribune, doesn't cover anything local of any significance, particularly in the Valley. The Times covers national news and big stories, but they are less attentive to local news. The Daily News covers the local news better, but they have a very obvious agenda. You have to be very careful of what the Daily News is saying and how they're whipping up public opposition or support for things without telling the full story sometimes. We are very limited in Los Angeles when it comes to print media outlets and it makes it difficult to carry on the dialogue necessary to govern effectively.

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