February 14, 2006 - From the February, 2006 issue

L.A.'s CLA Miller Responds To Council's Policy Agenda

If the job of the L.A. City Council is to come up with the big ideas for L.A., it is the job of the chief legislative analyst to translate those ideas into viable policy. Though the CLA's office does not get the attention or applause of the City Council, it nonetheless plays a crucial role in helping to realize the Council's collective and individual visions. Newly-installed CLA Gerry Miller spoke with TPR about his office and its priorities under a new Council.

Gerry Miller

You've been selected by the 15 members of the L.A. City Council to be the chief legislative analyst for the city of L.A. You succeed the famous and infamous Ron Deaton, who defined that job for almost a decade, and you come in with a new set of players and a new president of the Council, Eric Garcetti. Define your responsibilities for our readers.

My responsibilities are really what the Council determines them to be. The role of the CLA is to assist the Council in achieving their objectives, both collectively and individually. The task can take on a whole variety of forms, and it changes depending on what issues are before the Council.

What's on your office's plate as we publish this issue? What are the priority issues?

Many of the priorities are those that people have heard about. Certainly, public safety is a major priority, with regard to staffing levels in police as well a resources for fire and paramedic services, gang programs and youth intervention. In connection with that, we have been working very hard in helping bring the voter approved public safety bond programs to a successful completion. Clearly homelessness is a major priority, as well as affordable housing. Planning and land use issues in general are a major issue, as is, of course, the long-standing issue of inclusionary zoning. Transportation is, has been, and, I think, always will be a major issue. We're also deeply involved in the LAPD consent decree with the US Department of Justice, and we're working very hard with the chair of the Public Safety Committee, Councilmember Jack Weiss, the mayor's office, the LAPD, and the city attorney on that.

We are involved in economic development; we took the lead on the negotiations for the Convention Center hotel and were, in fact, in the lead on the original Staples Center negotiation. So in terms of economic development and blight removal and making downtown and other areas of the city livable communities – we've been working hard. It really runs the gamut: issues of parks and community services with Proposition K and Proposition 40; we have a central role in Proposition O and in developing multi-use projects involving stormwater capture, cleaning up the watersheds and protecting Santa Monica Bay.

Since 9/11, if not before, fewer and fewer voters really understand and appreciate what goes on in their city halls? What, of most significance, don't people fully appreciate?

One thing I would point out is the talent and dedication in City Hall, at all levels and all departments.

Most people don't have much dealings directly with City Hall or their government. They're concerned about their daily lives, as they should be. They're concerned about whether their streets are paved and their trees are trimmed, and quality of life issues. There is, though, a growing perception or cynicism about government that assumes that people don't work as hard and are not as talented as those in private industry, and that's really not the case.

Also, I've lived in a couple of other big cities and visited many, and Los Angeles, considering its size and complexity and the issues it faces, is remarkably well run. I don't think the public always appreciates that. The garbage is picked up every week on time, power is reliable, fire and police response times are very good and improving.

Are there advantages and/or disadvantages to L.A.'s size, over 400 square miles and with a population of four million people?

Certainly the geographic size makes mass transit difficult, and that's a very important issue for controlling traffic and for urban planning and development. It's a challenge to determine which areas can tolerate and even welcome more density, and which areas need to remain more suburban in nature, and how you move people between the two. But with any city of four million people, there are challenges with the sheer number of people that need to be served.

Councilmember Garcetti announced his reorganization of committees and jurisdictions. Address those changes and what they might mean for your office.

For our office, changes in committees, committee structure, and membership are not unusual, and, of course, in the era of term limits it's even more common. Our staff would continue to provide the information and analysis and policy recommendations to help the committee chairs function and help them put forward their policy objectives.

You mentioned term limits. In a world in which councilmembers serve only eight years, how does the City Council retain an institutional memory?

I, personally, have been with the city for 21 years, and we have a number of staff members with 30 or more years in the city, so there's institutional memory inherent in the office. It is an office that does not change in terms of staffing as the Council has changed over the years. We're sort of a centralized body that works for all 15 and there isn't substantial turnover as the Council changes.


There seems to be greater scrutiny now, for example, on the Department of Water and Power. Can you give us some background so our readers can understand what this new attention signifies?

There has always been a lot of attention paid to Water and Power. It is, of course, the largest municipal utility in the country and does provide service and a product that is central to people's lives. But there certainly are demands on the agency's revenues, and the fact of the matter is that there haven't been rate increases in a long time, so the discussion of how the department is funded and where rates need to be and how rates compare to other utilities, and whether they're doing business efficiently and effectively is really central to a lot of the focus on DWP.

The proprietary departments of the city of Los Angeles are quite significant to the livability and economic viability of the city Each – the port, the airport, DWP - has its own commission. What is and ought to be the relationship between those departments, their citizen oversight commissions, and the City Council?

The commissions run the departments. The commissioners are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Council, but they are independent proprietary departments. The Council clearly does have a role because the Council is the policy-making body of the city, and the voters hold the Council responsible regardless of whether it's a proprietary department.

The Council has the ability to overturn decisions made by the commissions and send them back to be reconsidered. The Council, however, cannot act in place of the commissions, and they can't change commissions' actions. So there's a check and balance there, which I certainly believe to be appropriate. It is a lesser role than the Council played prior to the new charter, when the Council could, in effect, step in as the board of those departments. Under the new charter, they can simply reject commission decisions if a supermajority of the Council votes to review those decisions. So I think it's a strong balance between having those departments run independently by their boards while recognizing that the Council does have a role.

Speaking of the new charter, in 2006 the Council will begin, per the provisions of that charter, to review the neighborhood council arrangements that were created under it. What can our readers expect from that review?

I'm not going to second-guess what the review will result in, but you can expect a diverse commission representing all areas of the city taking a close look at the functioning of neighborhood counsels and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and making recommendations and getting grassroots information about how they're functioning and how they can function better.

TPR has conducted a number of interviews over the years that in essence assert that L.A.'s neighborhood councils, which have, by design, no relationship to the delivery of city services nor any real tether to the city's government, may need to be tweaked to be of real value and to better assure that services and decisions are made in a thoughtful, integrative way for neighborhoods. Do you find a tension between doing your duty for the Council and meeting the needs of neighborhood councils as presently structured?

I have not found what you would refer to as a "tension." I would say that how neighborhood councils function and the issues they address and how they relate to the Council office in which they're located, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, and the mayor's office really varies substantially across the city. I think that's one of the things that this commission would be looking at – what has worked, and what hasn't; how things are functioning in various areas; what could be done globally to help them function better, help the information flow, and to gauge better what the various communities are concerned with.

Let's turn to fiscal issues. The city of L.A., according to some, still has a structural deficit built into its revenue and expenditure streams. But after Prop 1A, arguably some of these revenues are going to be protected from being taken by the state to meet its budget demands. What is the status of the state-local fiscal arrangement, and the city's financial health?

1A did result in restrictions on what the state can or cannot do, relative to using local revenues for state budgetary problems, so it is helpful, but local revenues are still not entirely protected. In terms of the city's budgetary situation, there is a structural deficit. Once the mayor's budget is released to the Council, I could speak in more detail about what priorities are funded and where the Council wants to go with the budget, but the structural deficit has to be addressed.

The Council has begun addressing it by adopting fiscal policies, increasing the reserve fund, moving forward with efforts to bring the budget into structural balance using only ongoing revenues for ongoing programs rather than using one-time revenues to "get over the hump." That results in tough decisions and structural balance will take more than one year to achieve.

Can our readers expect to soon see a city trash pick-up fee? Although frequently considered, such a fee has been off the table as a revenue source for decades.

I couldn't comment on that at this point. It really depends on what our revenue looks like. Obviously that's an issue that, in general, the public and the elected officials have been aware of for many years. We're just going to have to see what comes forward with the mayor's budget.


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