February 25, 2016 - From the February, 2016 issue

LA City Councilmember Ryu’s Top Priority: Constituent Engagement to Build Public Trust

Seven months after the election to represent CD4, TPR checked in on “outsider” candidate David Ryu’s transition into office. Ryu explains how he’s tackling mansionization and clues readers in on steps toward developing a transportation-management plan for the park- and landmark-rich area. Finally, Ryu defines issues plaguing City Hall, including a lack of capacity and a history of broken promises—pledging to earn community trust one small project at a time.

“It seemed on the surface like the community was frustrated about development... The root issue is lack of trust and lack of communication with government.” —David Ryu

Councilmember, you’re now almost a veteran—you’ve been in office seven months! How do you compare the challenges you now grapple with to what you thought they would be when you were a candidate?

David Ryu: I have to say, I expected a lot of them. The issues and community frustrations have been no surprise.

My background is in community engagement. I told the community that I believe in outreach and community participation—but those are ambiguous terms. People think, “That’s what everybody says to get elected. Once you get elected, you do your own thing.” I’ve taken the time, every chance I get, to actually integrate bottom-up strategy and collaboration. These things take a lot of time and work. I embrace it. That’s why I hired a team that also embraces that philosophy.

You have an experienced and excellent staff, but you literally ran for office against your opponent’s experience. How has your attitude toward City Hall evolved?

I didn’t run against experience. I ran against status quo and establishment. I ran for reform, change, and a fresh perspective. 

When I hired my staff, I looked for people who were willing to go above and beyond. It turns out that I have a mixture: Some folks have had City Hall experience, but a majority has not. It’s not about the experience—it’s about who you are, your philosophy, your work ethic, and your desire to bring about change and reform. 

I had worked in the county, which has a similar legislative process to the city. My experience there showed me that everything could be taught and learned. The question is: How fast can you hit the ground running? That’s why you have a team of folks, including the Chief Legislative Analyst and the Chief Administrative Officer.

Let’s turn to city planning, which was a serious campaign issue in your district. What is your policy position or framework for land-use planning in the Fourth District?

It’s a new Fourth District. It’s predominantly residential, with pockets of business. 

During the campaign, it seemed on the surface like the community was frustrated about development. But the root issue is lack of trust and lack of communication with government. They don’t trust their elected officials to do what they say or to make the best decision for the community.

When it comes to planning, it’s about first gaining trust around the small things, like potholes or tree trimming. It’s all related. Constituents have to feel confident in these small things so that when you say you’re going to do bigger things, they have that trust. Addressing the many concerns that they had, like mansionization, shows them that you’re going to work with them. Then you can start explaining the bigger things.

This edition of TPR also includes an interview with the City of LA's newly appointed Planning Director, Vince Bertoni. As the elected representative of Council District 4, what do you expect from Mr. Bertoni?

I met with Vince before he came before the Council. I’m very happy and think we’re going the right direction. He and I agree about community participation and getting engaged early. If there’s a situation, ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away. It’s going to come back, sometimes even stronger.

The Neighborhood Integrity Initiative now circulating for signatures in the City of LA, its proponents assert, is meant to compel a new General Plan and to address distrust of the city’s planning processes. Its very title and substance would seem to put the Council, which is the final arbiter of planning decisions, in a difficult position. What are your thoughts about this initiative and the growing revolt against the LA City land-use planning process?

I ran on reform—that’s how I won my election. This Neighborhood Integrity Initiative has many principles that I agree with. However, I am still evaluating it and haven’t taken a position. 

The minute I got elected, I took every chance I got to talk to business groups, developers, and architect associations. I wanted to let them know that it’s important that we get ahead of the curve. If you’re a developer, you can show me a nice presentation and I can give you all the zoning variances and zone changes you want, but guess what happens? A lawsuit. Whether you win or lose is irrelevant. For business, time is money. Getting held up for one to two years in litigation doesn’t help anybody. 

City Council does have the power of land use, but these days, it’s all in the courts. Sometimes these cases win, like recently. It’s my job to be that bridge. Trying to come to a compromise is difficult. But it’s my job, because in the absence of dialogue and trying to communicate the message, they’re going to create their own message. Case in point: this initiative.

This Neighborhood Integrity Initiative appears to arise from public distrust of the Council and the city to honor existing zoning codes or Community Plans. Spot zoning is the evil to be addressed. Is public cynicism merited?

Yes and no. The initiative points to spot zoning and outdated Community Plans, which is agreed upon by everybody. We need to get on top of that. But those are the surface issues. 

That’s why I go back to trust. In the version that I saw, the first three pages are a laundry list of what’s wrong, not just with City Hall, but also with government. Some of the issues don’t even deal with planning. They’re upset about the spot zoning because they’re saying politicians are in the pockets of developers. The developers donate and then the politicians do what they want. Yes, that’s a problem, but the root of it is based on ethics reform and campaign finance reform. 

There’s an opportunity for real reform to happen. Whether or not you support this initiative, it could derail real reform. 

You have been engaged in planning reform by introducing an Interim Control Ordinance to prevent mansionization in certain neighborhoods. Could you elaborate on what motivated you to prioritize this issue and how this interim ordinance is evolving?

It was one of the first things I introduced. I believe the ordinance is going to be instituted by April. 

It was a fractured system, from what I could tell. There was a Baseline Mansionization Ordinance, but there were a lot of loopholes. Certain councilmembers introduced Interim Control Ordinances to close these loopholes in certain communities. Once it happens in one place, neighbors say “Me too!” It’s a domino effect.

Many communities in Council District 4 didn’t get an ICO. Some communities had already started the process, so they were well ahead. All they required from me was to introduce the motion. But Sherman Oaks was one of the later-comers. I told them I would work with them to push it through—however, there is still a process. 

That was during the campaign. Now that I’m elected, I have to make sure that all voices are heard. I said that even if 90 percent of the folks wanted this, I needed to hear from the 10 percent that didn’t.

Sherman Oaks is so organized. Within a month, I got thousands of petitions. They helped to a point where I was able to include them in an ICO that passed for three communities.

They all understand that it’s an interim ordinance. The more people we put on ICOs, the more we take away from the update of the Baseline Mansionization Ordinance. It looks like the BMO is going to be done by the end of the year. The interim control protection will last for maybe five months. Then we have re:code LA that will supersede all of this. But the communities really wanted this to happen right now.

Another planning issue to which you’ve given attention is re:code LA, which was set up in phases, with Downtown being Phase One. When does Phase Two begin, if there’s any money left? How will it impact District 4?

There are two issues, not just with re:code LA, but with many things we do in the City of LA, like the Mobility Plan. First, there is a perception problem between what it really is and what people think it is. Second, there is a staffing problem.

Whether it’s re:code LA, BMO, or any new reforms we propose, there’s a lack of staff. It’s easy to say that DWP employees are not doing this or that. But during the last recession, when the city was broke, they raided all the funds. They had to cut back on all the staff. As the economy starts to improve and our budget situation gets better, we’re not throwing in motions to start backfilling all the staff. It’s hard to ask a department, “Why are you so slow? When are you going to do all this?” without giving them a proper staff to push these things through. 

I believe they’re working on Phase Two now. The more ICOs we introduce and the more we push for these BMOs, the more we take away from re:code. It’s like robbing Peter to give to Paul. It’s a frustration, but it’s partially politics. 


 In this next budget cycle, I’m fully advocating to fund backfilling a lot of staff—not just for the Planning Department, but also for Building & Safety, Parking Enforcement, and Transportation.

Speaking of staffing, there were critics, when budget deficits ballooned immediately after the banking meltdown of 2008-09, of the City Council’s decision to offer early and expensive retirement to its most experienced managers. The concern was that, precisely when the city needed experienced managers to address cutbacks in services, it was left with less experienced staff to execute  reinvention of city services. Were the critics right? And what do you currently need in the way of new staffing?

That is another key concern of mine. I’m all about capacity-building. It’s about the future, not just the present.

I’m on the Personnel Committee. My team said to me, “Forget who we let go; in the next five years, 40 percent of our staff is going to be eligible for retirement.” We have a hiring problem for all the departments—LAFD, LAPD, you name it. And once you hire them, they’re brand new with no experience. All the senior positions are leaving. When the senior positions leave, we have the benefit of higher salaries being gone, but we don’t have that transfer of knowledge. 

Every chance I get, with every department head I speak to, I say, “Let me know what I can do to help increase your capacity.” I want to increase any city employee’s continuing education. All those programs were cut in the past, though we just passed $3 million for online education. I want to start integrating live training, as well. Our Innovation Technology Officer, Peter Marx, has a lot of great ideas.

Since the deep recession and steep budget deficits, the city has clearly been underfunding technology investment to support the capacity building you’re concerned about. Is the Council now in a position to invest in 21st century office technology?

I’m committed to that. 

Now, it’s easy to say, “I support this.” Where’s it going to come from? It’s always a balancing act. It’s easy to say that my predecessors made bad decisions. But they made tough decisions given the situation at hand. 

In the future, knowing that we’re going to fund these things, it’s about where to get it from.

It seems like the Council traditionally prefers more people, and not investment in capacity-building technologies, to address productivity. 

Bob, as head of the Technology Committee, is keen on that. Marqueece Harris-Dawson, my colleague on the Personnel Committee, is all about additional local hires and training. There’s a change, but it’s incremental.

You serve on the Council’s Transportation Committee. What are your priorities regarding mobility?

The Department of Transportation is one of those key departments that have had lots of bottlenecks. 

For example, the preferential parking district process involves a six-month period where the community asks for it. I’m so happy with Seleta Reynolds: LADOT reevaluated the whole program, cut out some inefficient steps, and made it four months. However, because there’s such a huge backlog and some problems in personnel, if you apply for a PPD today, it’s going to take two years. 

Because the Mulholland Pass is so congested, my streets up in Sherman Oaks are bumper to bumper. They’ve been complaining. I’ve been pushing the Department of Transportation to form a group. Before I could get the Department of Transportation to have a working committee with LAPD, the Traffic Division, and different community groups to go over simple solutions, there was one engineer for the entire Valley based out of DOT. I got them another FTE. 

Since November, we’ve been having monthly meetings with the different blocks, and it’s gotten bigger and bigger because they want to participate. They’re asking for simple things, like no left turns, stop signs, and repainting speed bumps. People are seeing these little changes happening. Is it solving their entire problem? Of course not. But they know we’re working with Waze. 

It’s about micro-issues. You can’t do big fancy things without doing these small things!

Let’s pivot to Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks in America and a Council District 4 treasure. You sit on the Arts, Parks, and River Committee. Share your priorities. 

Right now, the major thing we’re working on is a transportation management plan for all of our parks. 

Museum Row, Griffith Park, Runyon Canyon, the Hollywood sign, the Original Farmer’s Market, and the Grove are all in CD 4. We have everything. However, our parks are being loved to death. Everybody is going to our parks and they’re overrun. There’s a tourism issue with the Hollywood sign. It’s clear that in the Griffith Park observatory area, there are bottlenecks everywhere. It’s a public safety hazard. 

We came up with a whole plan to make Griffith Park more efficient through a shuttle system. We’re going to start with that. We want to expand it throughout the park to interlink the zoo with Travel Town and the golf course. All of this will be integrated not just within the park, but also outside the park, including Los Feliz, the Metro station, and the DASHes, so that people can park outside. That is a small piece of the regional approach.

The Hollywood sign is the most iconic thing in the world. And it’s a public street and a public park. Whether you’re a tourist from another country or you live down the street, you have the God-given right to go there. But public safety is a concern of mine. In the Beachwood area, there are small, narrow, substandard streets, and they get traffic-logged. Emergency vehicles can’t get through. But let’s say you took the route of closing everything down. Then everyone would go to the observatory, which is already jam-packed. 

When it comes to our urban parks, it’s a transportation management problem. Everything links together. 

While you were campaigning for City Council, there was a major contractual controversy over management of the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park. An awkward interim compromise was reached. Many critics of this compromise, given the dire finances of the city, questioned how the city, without resources, could assume fiscal responsibility for the millions in new investment that were thought required to manage and upgrade the Greek. Were their concerns misplaced? 

This is one of the many issues I inherited. It’s working out well, and I think it’s very promising. 

But there was a perception problem. Everyone in the public was told that the city was going to run the Greek. During the campaign, I said, “The city should not run this. You decided it in two months? That’s a knee-jerk reaction.” 

But the city is not running it. Through an RFP process, the city hired SMG, one of the larger management companies that specializes worldwide in managing venues like this. Management and promotion are now separate.

It’s also, again, an issue of lack of trust. We should have brought them on early. The process was flawed.

In closing, when TPR interviews you again in a year, what will we most likely address?

Hopefully, I will be talking about the progress of more global issues, like jobs creation and homelessness with a mental health focus. 

We should be at a point where localized issues like the Greek, traffic in Sherman Oaks, and mansionization would have been updated and resolved. I would also have a dialogue in place with the various communities, where they talk to each other, I talk to them, and we build trust. That will allow us to talk about the bigger, grander-scheme things.


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