City hall guru

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - This in­ter­view has been con­densed and edited. patt.mor­ri­son@latimes.com Twit­ter: @pattm­la­times

The quo­ta­tion ap­pended to Rick Cole’s emails is from St. Fran­cis of As­sisi: “Start by do­ing what is nec­es­sary, then what is pos­si­ble, and sud­denly you are do­ing the im­pos­si­ble.” It’s prac­ti­cally a man­ual for the man who be­came Mayor Eric Garcetti’s deputy mayor for bud­get and in­no­va­tion two years ago. For 30 years, Cole has been try­ing to graft the im­pos­si­ble to the nec­es­sary as coun­cil mem­ber and mayor in Pasadena, and city man­ager in Azusa and Ven­tura. Now he’s about to re­sume the city man­ager role, this time in Santa Mon­ica. How does Los An­ge­les look in his rear-view mir­ror? You be­gan as a fire­brand Pasadena coun­cil­man; now you’re more, shall we say, de­lib­er­ate.

I like to call my­self a Zen Catholic. I am im­pa­tient for change but pa­tient with the pace of change. I have to be in it for the long haul. It’s al­ways frus­trated me that our pol­i­tics and media cov­er­age are so shal­low and short term; the things that mat­ter in peo­ple’s lives take longer than the news cy­cle and the elec­tion cy­cle. Change is im­per­a­tive in a chang­ing world, but some­times, in the public sec­tor, it comes at all de­lib­er­ate speed. City gov­ern­ment is built with speed bumps; is that salu­tary?

On bal­ance, no, but you have to re­spect the rea­son. A lot of checks and bal­ances are built into the sys­tem to avoid cor­rup­tion and half­baked ideas, but South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s gov­er­nance mech­a­nisms have clearly fallen be­hind the times. Iron­i­cally, most were de­signed by re­form­ers. The peo­ple who wrote the city char­ter and the re­call, ref­er­en­dum and ini­tia­tive process were petrified of abuse of power. The char­ter was de­signed to pre­vent cor­rup­tion, not to en­able ef­fec­tive­ness. They took ef­fec­tive gov­ern­ment for granted.

So when you ask ques­tions like “Who’s re­spon­si­ble for the mis­er­able state of L.A. streets?,” you can blame any­one be­cause al­most any­body has a piece of the prob­lem and al­most no one has the power to fix it. Is the city man­ager form of gov­ern­ment prefer­able to a full-fledged coun­cil and mayor sys­tem like L.A.’s?

It works bet­ter in pe­riph­eral cities. What makes more sense for Los An­ge­les is to have a chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer ap­pointed by the mayor, nei­ther of which ex­ists [now]. An­ge­lenos won­der why their pri­or­i­ties for city gov­ern­ment don’t seem to be the pri­or­i­ties of peo­ple who run the gov­ern­ment.

We ob­sess about voter turnout. That’s the least salient in­di­ca­tor of en­gage­ment. Elec­tions are im­por­tant, but they only hap­pen ev­ery two or four years, and gov­ern­ment hap­pens ev­ery day. Elec­tions don’t talk about the things that are im­por­tant to vot­ers; they’re about ma­nip­u­la­tion of emo­tions and not prob­lem-solv­ing. Mayor Garcetti is a re­mark­able ex­cep­tion to this be­cause [of his agen- da:] back to ba­sics. When gov­ern­ment can’t an­swer the phones, fix the streets, then to talk about end­ing poverty and [other] moon­shot pri­or­i­ties lacks cred­i­bil­ity. But put ba­sic things in place and great things can be achieved. Isn’t this mayor try­ing to do both?

He’s clearly try­ing to do both. We are mak­ing progress on the ba­sics. When he took of­fice, the fi­nance depart­ment was only an­swer­ing phone calls 51% of the time in the month be­fore the dead­line for busi­ness taxes; 49% of calls were go­ing to voice­mail and it was tak­ing two weeks to re­turn them. This year they an­swer calls with a per­son 85% of the time and peo­ple who left mes­sages were get­ting an an­swer in one day. That’s not go­ing to run on the front page of the pa­per, but the chronic fail­ure in­evitably shows up on the front page. What per­ils do you see ahead for L.A.?

I would say we don’t need any more peo­ple ap­pointed as watch­dogs. We need more peo­ple equipped to make change. [That takes] money, and Los An­ge­les is strapped. The sec­ond is po­lit­i­cal will. The third is sim­ply band­width; most of the peo­ple in city gov­ern­ment are up to their eye­balls in keep­ing the place run­ning. Since we don’t have money and since po­lit­i­cal will is hard to cap­ture, the most ef­fec­tive things [to do] are long-term sys­temic change [and] to move be­yond the cri­sis man­age­ment of the eco­nomic cri­sis and to­ward re­ally build­ing the fu­ture. The stan­dard anti-gov­ern­ment mantra is “waste, fraud and abuse.” What’s your re­join­der?

Some­one asked me my fa­vorite the­olo­gian. I said St. Fran­cis be­cause he said to the monks, “Go and preach the Gospel, and if nec­es­sary, use words.” The waste, fraud and abuse trope is not one you can rhetor­i­cally re­spond to. We have to be very prac­ti­cal and demon­strate that we’re will­ing to go the ex­tra mile. Why is Los An­ge­les so far be­hind in civic tech­nol­ogy?

The mayor’s ac­knowl­edged as the most tech-savvy big-city mayor in Amer­ica, but he jokes that that’s like be­ing the tallest build­ing in Canoga Park. We start from a deep hole. De­ci­sions had to be made dur­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis about what to heave over­board to bal­ance the bud­get, and tech­nol­ogy and train­ing were the first things. In ret­ro­spect those would have been valu­able in­vest­ments, but that’s easy to judge in hind- sight. Now we have the op­por­tu­nity to ad­dress what didn’t get ad­dressed dur­ing the cri­sis. With so much to do, why leave now?

It was an in­cred­i­bly hard choice. The most im­por­tant de­cid­ing fac­tors were, when you’re city man­ager, you have the en­tire sweep of tools at your dis­posal. You over­see the fire depart­ment, po­lice depart­ment, plan­ning, public works. As ap­pre­cia­tive as I am of the mayor’s sup­port, I per­son­ally am bet­ter at a smaller scale, where I can have a di­rect re­la­tion­ship with the front lines. You’re go­ing to Santa Mon­ica — one of 88 cities in L.A. County. How can they all co­or­di­nate to make the re­gion work?

First is the recog­ni­tion that Los An­ge­les is not com­pet­ing with Glendale, and Glendale is not com­pet­ing with Bur­bank. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia is com­pet­ing with Tokyo, Sin­ga­pore and Shang­hai. As an ex­am­ple, at the mo­ment we’re strug­gling with bike-share ven­dors. Santa Mon­ica was de­ter­mined to move for­ward when Metro was slow on the up­take, and now Metro is say­ing, “You need to play with us be­cause we’re a much big­ger sys­tem.” We have to solve that so a per­son in Venice can ride all the way to Mal­ibu.

For me, the test is Val­ley Forge. A third of Washington’s troops were with­out shoes. As best I can tell, ev­ery­body who works for L.A. and Santa Mon­ica has shoes. If Washington could beat the largest em­pire in the world with his Conti- nen­tals, we can over­come the chal­lenges we face. What will you miss about City Hall?

The peo­ple. Be­cause the sys­tems are so ter­ri­ble, the only way L.A. has been able to work through this cri­sis is the heroic ef­fort by peo­ple who deeply care and didn’t have to; with civil ser­vice pro­tec­tions, it’s not easy to get fired. I’ll miss the peo­ple who strive to de­liver de­spite all the ob­sta­cles. What frus­trates you about L.A.?

I hate the fact that the public realm is be­yond filthy, so I pick up trash on the way to and from City Hall. How Sisyphean, right? But if ev­ery­body did it, it’d be clean, and peo­ple would be ashamed to throw trash. What do you love about L.A.?

At Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege, I had a de­bate with a friend who had grown up in Den­ver and was ap­palled by Los An­ge­les; he ac­cused me of not know­ing any­thing about L.A. be­cause I’d grown up in Pasadena. We spent Christ­mas va­ca­tion of my se­nior year on the bus, go­ing to or­di­nary neigh­bor­hoods to un­der­stand this com­pli­cated and dy­namic city. At the end [my friend] said he would never live in a city like L.A., and I said I will never leave. This is the most in­ter­est­ing place on the planet and will be for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

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