May 2, 2011 - From the April, 2011 issue

L.A. Council President Garcetti Candidly Assesses City Challenges

As the president of the L.A. City Council through good times and bad, Eric Garcetti has remained an eloquent spokesman for neighborhood planning principles. With the ability of the Planning Department to do long range planning in question and a new round of budget contractions on the table, does the city have the resources to achieve its goals for improved quality of life? To detail the city's planning and fiscal misadventures, and, hopefully, celebrate the light at the end of the tunnel, TPR is pleased to present the following exclusive interview with City Council President Eric Garcetti.

Eric Garcetti

TPR does this interview with you on the very day that Mayor Villaraigosa has gone public with the city's 2012 fiscal year budget. Our readers are aware of the city's structural deficit and, thus, are interested in what you believe Los Angeles must to do to balance the budget going forward.

We need three things with our city budget: a focus on our core public services, like paving our streets; keeping those streets safe with police officers, fire fighters, and paramedics; and continuing to address our budget deficit, without gimmicks or one time fixes but with permanent structural relief. We have downsized the workforce by about 4,000 in the General Fund, not for cops and fire fighters. That is the same level we had the in last year of Tom Bradley's administration, when we had a million fewer people.

We have made tremendous strides over the last few years, but I have been a voice to avoid the one-time gimmick, whether that means privatizing parking structures or the one time sale of land. Such gimmicks avoid the real underlying issue, which is the soaring coast of our benefits and our healthcare. We need to focus on our core priorities, avoiding mission creep every year like we have.

Many Angelenos, reacting to the city's reduction in services and ever growing deficits the last two years, ask why the city's elected leadership haven't made the tough decisions necessary to responsibly turn L.A. around and to begin both to create jobs and to close the city's structural deficit.

There is no big city in America that has taken such strong steps forward on resolving the budget deficit as Los Angeles. No other city cut their civilian workforce by a third. I will always eliminate positions in the most compassionate way possible. Lay-offs have tremendous impacts on families and communities. If we can do that by shifting people to open jobs and special funds and proprietary departments that isn't avoiding the problem. Their jobs are permanently eliminated when they leave General Fund positions. That is permanent savings every single year.

We have done pension reform. We put on the ballot a new tier that will save us billions of dollars as we hire new police and fire fighters, which I championed. In the era of term limits, that is almost unheard of-why not pass the problem to the next generation of councilmembers and mayors, just as we inherited it from two mayors ago and two councils ago? Third, I have focused the conversation on healthcare. Pensions get medium and long-term savings, but healthcare costs are immediate. Our breakthrough agreement with our engineers and architects to pay out of pocket for healthcare and our tentative agreement that is out there would take from six percent up to eleven percent-on what we pay for pensions and healthcare benefits, I don't know any other big city in America that has done as much as quickly. If a company told you we're going to get rid of a third of our workforce in a year and a half, it would be too fast for the private sector. For the public sector to have done that is almost unheard of. This plan, this year, eliminates all furloughs, which means more services for our communities.

We've consolidated departments, we've eliminated departments, we've cut jobs, but we've also used technology in other ways to improve the services we're providing. That is a very, very strong record for all of us.

Many civic stakeholders believe the city of Los Angeles is in decline and without adult leadership. They point to the exit of experienced general managers, the decline of basic services, the rapid turnover of senior departmental staff, the absence of mayoral leadership on the fiscal challenges confronting the city, the contortions over DWP fiscal affairs, and the failure to create new jobs as evidence of that decline. They ask why L.A. is no longer a leading entrepreneurial city in the United States. Are these criticisms fair?

I've focused in my district on turning around depressed communities and turning around some of our signature neighborhoods. I've seen our ability, even in tough economic times, to keep an economic engine not only moving forward but really roaring ahead in communities like Hollywood, Silver Lake, and Atwater Village. We do that by changing the way that we look at our public space, by investing in our schools, and by becoming business friendly. I'm very proud of having reduced our city's business tax after 30 years of talk from conservative and liberal mayors alike. I have picked up the phone and attracted new companies, new production, all sorts of business entities to come into the 13th Council District.

But I share the frustration of the general public about the city at large. I've focused on two things in the last year a half: jobs and the budget deficit. In terms of jobs, I'm proud to have helped bring new companies to Los Angeles, to have put forward a new tax category to inspire internet companies to stay and expand in Los Angeles, and to focus on the job training that we need for the growth sectors of the future-healthcare, green jobs, trade, and tourism. That is a space where we have to keep focus.

But I don't refute much of the criticism. We've had way too much turnover in general managers, and we've had an executive branch that has been less than focused. That's a frustration of being on the legislative side: you can be a voice for the people, you can set the agenda, you can do a lot in your own district, but at the end of the day, for Los Angeles to be great again, we're all going to have to pull together.

For the last year, the Mayor's Office has measured its business friendliness by how fast projects can be expedited through Planning and the Department of Building and Safety. Perhaps related, there is growing evidence of a corruption emerging out of Building and Safety. Can you comment on the pros and cons of the city's new emphasis on streamlining city processes?

I was extremely troubled to see that some of our building and safety inspectors were for sale. It showed a lack of leadership and oversight by those who were overseeing these departments. I don't think it's related to expediting, though. This is corruption in the old-fashioned sense, where people line their pockets at the expense of the people and at the expense of public trust. There is nothing more important to us than being trusted by the people that we serve. It is a sacred trust, and those who violate it should absolutely be punished to the full extent of the law. The people who oversee them should also be held responsible for those actions that happened under their watch.

Separately, we have to continue moving forward on making this city more business friendly. I was glad to see the Mayor's Office move forward with what we had called for in Hollywood with support from the community, which was to speed up the renewal of restaurant CUPs.

To help new businesses get established, I voiced a strong vision for the business community of development reform. Some called it 12-to-2, but the city had a series of failures in implementing that. What I'd like to see is to finally get that on track. I'm going to see it through, while others will come and go.

I don't link those two things together. We can be an efficient city, and we can be a non-corrupt city. And for those inspectors who violated the public trust, I'd like to see them be locked up.

Your interview will accompany an interview of the new planning director of the city of Pasadena, Vince Bertoni, who last worked as a deputy for Gail Goldberg until she retired. Mr. Bertoni stated in his interview that the city of Pasadena, unlike Los Angeles, embraces both a cultural and political sense of the role of planning in relation to the entire city and also rejects planning case-by-case and measuring success solely by how fast projects can be expedited. Do you agree?

I agree with him. It's one of the reasons I've focused so strongly on giving Angelenos the understanding and the skills to do real planning. Real planning can't come from City Hall, it has to come from our neighborhoods. It's why we've reenvisioned public space in my district, with everything from CicLAvia, which opens up streets for pedestrians and bicycles to enjoy our city, to the Cahuenga alleyway project in Hollywood, which takes unsafe old alleys and turn them into great pedestrian thoroughfares, with vibrant businesses and cafes. That is part of the reason we looked at an Atwater Village parking program and the revitalization of Sunset Junction in Silver Lake. These are great, ground-up community planning projects that are the direct result of work my office has done- to develop a curriculum called Planning 101, which now is standard for the Planning Department to take into a community. We did planning 102, 103 and 104, which taught people about parking and housing, and really put the question forward: What do you want to see in your own neighborhood? Well, here's how you get it.


We cannot continue to separate our Planning Department from real planning. I feel like a broken record, but Hollywood's Community Plan, which was promised to me 10 years ago, is finally in the last round, but it still isn't done. We're finally close, but it shouldn't take a decade. We shouldn't be building based on a plan from 1987.

A new culture is emerging, though. This is a much more articulate city in terms of what it wants from urban planning than it ever has been. That has come from neighborhood councils, community groups, and, to their credit, the Planning Department's shift toward educating the city instead of just imposing projects. We could spend probably an hour going through my favorite projects that are a reflection of that, but the current culture is very different from the strip-mall mentality of the 1980s. Its time for us to make sure that uniformity doesn't just happen in isolated communities, like some of the ones I represent, but throughout the city.

One of the hot-button issues at the state and city level is Governor Brown's plan to do away with redevelopment agencies to help make up the state's budget shortfall. Your thoughts?

I worry if any of the money that would go back to Sacramento, if the move is even legal, would wind up in our schools. I don't think it would. It would let the legislature and the Governor off the hook for the deficit right now, and in no way would it be seen in the classrooms, with firefighters, or other places.

That said, I've always had mixed feelings about redevelopment. We have to point out when it has failed, where it has been unsuccessful, and where it just employs bureaucrats. I also have seen the tremendous impact redevelopment can have in an area like Hollywood, which is the single most successful redevelopment area in California.

In the last decade, [the Hollywood CRA area] has increased tax revenues by 439 percent. That means more fire station support, more police on the beat, and more recreation, park, and library facilities for the entire city. This massive economic engine of Hollywood has roared back. Visitors don't just stay for an average of 23 minutes anymore; they stay overnight.

We're going to have a million more visitors that come through well-planned-out developments, such as the new Cirque du Soleil show, which will bring a million visitors to Hollywood who otherwise wouldn't have spend any money in the city of Los Angeles.

With redevelopment, you need to point out what works, but you also need to be grown-up enough to know when you need to walk away from it. In Hollywood, for instance, it might be time to say that we've reached the critical point: there are a few more things we need to invest in to make sure we don't go backwards, but then let's pack up, instead of saying we're going to be in business for another 20 years when that money could be better spent elsewhere.

You have a well-deserved reputation as an advocate for sustainability and green development. How is it that L.A.'s municipal utility, L.A. DWP, is still one of the state's most polluting and that its ambitious carbon reduction goals and programs have been scaled back, reframing the city's green agenda around rates rather than AB 32 and sustainability?

The reform of L.A. DWP is probably the most important place that we can get green jobs in this city and reinvest the public trust in what we do in government. Besides the trash getting picked up every day, most people don't interact with the government as much as they do through their water and power bills. L.A. DWP has had a wonderful history of economic development, but it has almost forgotten that it works for the people. It's forgotten its role in economic development. It was a very lonely place nine years ago, when Alex Padilla and I stepped forward to divest from Mojave coal plant. Ron Deaton, who was the Chief Legislative Analyst at the time, said, "Oh, you guys are cute and young and environmental, but I've got all my votes." Alex and I worked it and, lo and behold, we beat him. We got eight votes to begin to divest from a dirty coal-burning plant and start looking at green power.

The department, though, has gone in fits and starts. It hasn't focused enough on connecting green power with green jobs locally, so we're buying wind from Montana instead of putting solar panels up in our own basin, where people are out of work. The DWP has no overarching vision of how it wants to achieve a greener future. It has focused too much on rates and not on bills. People are willing to see higher rates if it means that the department will help them reduce their bills through conservation.

The DWP also has not been enough of a friend to business. Unlike most places that have private utilities that cannot be controlled by policy makers, here the Department of Water and Power could be a voice in the public process to attract new jobs. The overwhelming voter support for my ratepayer advocate and open budgeting initiatives is a really positive step forward. We have a super new general manager; I can't speak highly enough of what I've seen Ron Nichols do so far. I am hoping this is going to be the turnaround year, but I'm going to keep a close eye on the DWP, because that's where we're going to see job growth.

I just came from the White House, where I met about energy efficiency and conservation efforts. That is where we can get green jobs, today. Not sometime down the line, but right now, which also helps our bottom line and our recovery.

In closing, even Ron Nichols, LADWP's new general manager, has said that with regard to the slow pace of LADWP's renewable programs, the elephant in the room is Brian D'Arcy and IBEW Local 18. Can you elaborate on Brian D'Arcy and Local 18 influence on L.A. DWP's renewables' policies?

Where we get partnership from our unions, stepping up like they did to take raises in cash instead of in permanent increases, we should thank them. But we need to also acknowledge where we don't have partnerships in moving forward to control our costs. There's no question that the Department of Water and Power will have to reduce its expenses, and I admire Ron's initial focus on those goals. No one entity is so powerful that it can overwhelm the will of the people, as evidenced by the vote for a ratepayer advocate. People are willing to be fair to our workers at the Department of Water and Power; we have been and should continue to be. But we can't lose sight of reliability, of greening, and of making sure that we have accountability at the DWP.

There is someone on the side of the people now with the ratepayer advocate. I hope we have hired someone for that position by the end of the summer.


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