August 29, 2005 - From the August, 2005 issue

Commissioner Cynthia Ruiz Handles Challenges Large and Small at Helm of Public Works Board

With a staff of over 5,000, a billon-dollar budget, and oversight of five bureaus that build both large capital projects and perform essential day-to-day tasks, the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works is often considered one of the county's best-kept secrets. Cynthia Ruiz was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as President of the five-member board, a full-time executive body that oversees the department's five bureaus. MIR was pleased to talk with Commissioner Ruiz about the board's role in maintaining L.A.'s infrastructure and services.

Cynthia Ruiz

MIR has not interviewed a President of the Board of Public Works in years, and it would be wonderful if you could share with our readers the board's role and the Department of Public Works array of responsibilities in the City of Los Angeles.

The Department of Public Works is the third-largest department in the City of Los Angeles. We have approximately 5,600 employees. Our annual budget is just under $1 billion, and basically, our department handles the infrastructure for the city. We have five different bureaus under the department: street lighting, street services, the bureau of sanitation, the bureau of engineering, and we have contract administration. So, we're responsible for a lot of the issues that effect constituents on a day-to-day basis, from streets to street lights, to trees, to potholes. We manage the city sewer system. We pick up the trash. So, we have a lot of interaction with the residents of the City of Los Angeles.

And what is the President's and Board's role in managing the Department of Public Works?

There are five full-time commissioners, and we act as general managers for the Department, and each commissioner is assigned a bureau to work with. In my case, I am the lead on the Bureau of Sanitation, and we are dealing with some big issues right now in terms of where we put our trash and our biosolids. I am the backup for the Bureau of Engineering. In engineering, we build all city facilities. We are currently building new fire stations and a new police headquarters.

I personally see my role as president, in addition to being a general manager, as a three-fold job. First and foremost, I am here to serve the stakeholders of the City of Los Angeles and make the city a better place. Secondly, and equally as important, I am here to serve the mayor and help him fulfill his vision for the City of Los Angeles. And third, I am here to represent the employees of the Department of Public Works. All three are equally important.

The issue of solid waste has spurred much debate lately. From a Public Works standpoint, what will be the city's strategy for handling trash in the coming years?

Well, I think that it is not a simple question. I think it is a complex issue, but definitely, one thing that we are looking at with our Integrated Resource Plan on solid waste. So what we want to do is to engage our stakeholders and get their input on what we should do. Right now, the Board is looking at alternative technologies such as thermal recycling, gasification and anaerobic digestion-options other than landfills, so we are right now evaluating all of our options. There is not a simple answer and the City generates a lot of trash. It is a process and ultimately we might decide to use several options at the same time.

You've talked about interfacing with constituents in terms of getting more feedback. How would you describe the relationship between the board and the city's elected officials-Mayor Villaraigosa and the City Council? How do you receive input from them, and how do you interact with them?

We are mayor-appointed positions, so obviously we have a lot of interaction with the mayor and his office. I report directly to Deputy Mayor Larry Frank in the mayor's office. In terms of council offices, we also have a lot of interaction. Each commissioner is assigned three council districts to work with. I personally work with Eric Garcetti's district, councilmember Greig Smith, who is chair of public works, as well as the vacant position in Council District 14. Each of the other commissioners are assigned their council districts, so there is a lot of interaction, both on a daily basis with constituent services, and on the big-picture type of things, we work with Councilmember Smith on Public Works, and his Renew L.A. committee.

With the inauguration of a new administration, there's much excitement and optimism. What do you see as the challenges and realistic opportunities for the Public Works Board and city in the next few years?

As you indicated, there is a lot of excitement. Excitement, first that I have returned to the Board of Public Works. I have gotten a lot of support from staff. But also, there's excitement just with the new administration. One of the things about the new mayor – as he said in his inauguration speech – he wants to dream big and think big. One of the directives he gave us, in terms of public works, is to plant a million trees. He wants to plant a million trees, and just to give you a little bit of perspective, the county of Los Angeles currently maintains only 170,000 trees. So, this is a big task, and I was a little bit worried at first, but I have found that our staff – under public works, we have the chief forester that works with us, our street tree division – people are excited. They are up to the challenge. When you set the goals so high, I thought people were going to be negative. But they are saying, "OK, let's figure this out. How do we get together and when do we start?" In terms of what are the challenges for the board for the next year.

Another area is what we do with our biosolids. We have Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant, so we treat the sewage, but out of that we still have residuals which are called biosolids. Right now we are applying them to our farm. The city owns a farm in Bakersfield called Green Acres Farm. So, we apply the biosolids that we have to a farm and grow crops, and it is almost like human fertilizer. But we are having issues there because in Bakersfield, people don't want us there. They don't want the city's biosolids.

One main issue that we have had for a few years, and it is going to continue, is money. We just don't have enough money. And this affects the condition of our infrastructure, our streets, and sewers. The average age of our sewers is fifty years old, so we need to invest in sewers, we need to invest in the streets, we need to invest in the infrastructure for the long run. So, coming up with the amount of money, we are very proud to say that last year with the passage of Proposition O, which was our water bond for clean water, right now we are trying to figure out how to spend that money.


One of the things that I need to do as general manager of this department and president of Public Works is to make sure that the $500 million dollars is spent on what it is supposed to go for, to clean up the water. A lot of people say, "The council is going to use that for their pet projects." My job is to make sure that that money goes where the voters want it to go. So, we have a lot of challenges, but I am also proud to say that in public works, we have a lot of dedicated, smart employees, and we are up to the challenges.

Elaborate for our readers how the Public Works Board manages its many responsibilities. How is accountability assured? How are complex projects such as the million trees project administered, and how are constituent requests, such as those to fill potholes and repair water mains, handled?

In the five bureaus that we have, we do have bureau directors that are accountable, but I think for me it's developing a plan. Like with the million trees. Of course, that is a big task, so what do we do? We need to develop a plan, so right now we are in the process of working with the mayor in developing a task force. Not only in internal city department – the Department of Water and Power, Environmental Affairs, Recreation and Parks – but external. We need to make sure that we are including the County of Los Angeles to develop partnerships, and include the state, include private and environmental groups like Treepeople and Northeast Trees, as well as LAUSD, which is building new schools. We all need to start working together.

One of the challenges of our department has had over the past few years is really working with the public more, through the neighborhood council process. Neighborhood councils are new, but we finally have a structured voice of the community to interact with the city. And I am very proud of my department and staff that we actually go out to the neighborhood councils and meet with them on a regular basis, and keep them updated. So, that has been a challenge for our department, and it is a process. Sometimes when a community is protesting a project some of the engineers say, "This is so logical – why can't they get this?" And sometimes when we are dealing with the community, they may be acting on emotion, and not necessarily logic. So, it involves finding that nice blend with the community and working together and getting their input from the beginning.

We were the first department in the City of Los Angeles to work with neighborhood councils and develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). We said, "OK, we are going to work with the neighborhood councils. Let's do a pilot with four neighborhood councils, and let's see how we can interact." I am very proud to say, that if you go out to the community, they are going to say that public works is one of the better departments in this city to work with.

Just thinking back to what I was just mentioning is the community outreach. The commissioners are also the PR people for the department. I go into the community, as I mentioned, we are assigned different council areas. I am in my council district almost every week. We go to evening meetings, we go to weekend meetings. So, not only are we managing the department, but one of the most important aspects of our job is community outreach and working with the stakeholders to make sure that the city is delivering what the community wants.

The Bureau of Engineering, which reports to the Board of Public Works, is charged with the responsibility of being the project manager for the city's capital projects, at least it's been that way for some time. Do you envision the bureau will continue to play that role?

Absolutely. I am very proud of our project managers, in particular, we are just wrapping up our library bond program, and I have to say that with our project managers within the bureau of engineering, we were able to deliver those projects on time and under budget, and from our savings we were able to build an additional two libraries. The project called for roughly 32 libraries, and because of the savings, we were able to build two additional libraries. I think that is very good management of the city's resources, and yes, I do think that Bureau of Engineering will continue working on these projects.

We have a new city administration, a new board of public works president, and a number of critical infrastructure challenges facing the City of LA. Six months, a year, or a year and a half from now, by what benchmarks or criteria do you want people to judge the job that you and the Board are doing?

Just like I mentioned, there are three things that are important to me: the residents, the mayor, and the employees. I think that at the end of six months, going to each of those areas and asking how I am doing, that is going to tell me how I am doing. I will go to the community and ask them to give me feedback. I will go to the mayor and ask for feedback, and also my own employees. One thing that I do – I'm very hands-on – with the bureau of Sanitation, I do not hesitate to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning and go talk to our Sanitation truck drivers before they go out on their routes and thank them for the hard work that they do because they are the ones who are out in the field every day. So, by looking at those three areas that are important to me, that is how I am going to be evaluated.

Anyone with additional questions about Public Works is welcome to visit our website at


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.