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Political Wimpishness

December 04, 1987

A majority of the Los Angeles City Council took a duck on the case of Sylvia Cunliffe, the embattled chief of the city's massive General Services Department. Instead of looking at the facts and either firing her or letting her stay on, the council made a deal. Pretty wimpy stuff.

In exchange for $17,600 in unused sick pay and perhaps the chance to save face, Cunliffe agreed to retire--on a pension of about $58,000 a year--and drop her lawsuits against the city. Her threat of a legal battle, potentially lengthy and expensive, turned the council to putty.

Mayor Tom Bradley had accused Cunliffe of nepotism, favoritism and retaliation against an employee who anonymously blew the whistle on some questionable practices. The mayor wanted her fired, but in the end approved the deal--with reservations.

Major department heads have little to fear when it comes to job security. Although they are typically appointed by the mayor, as Cunliffe was in 1979, they do not serve at the mayor's pleasure. Removal is not an easy matter. Obviously the process needs modification. Unfortunately, voters have rejected attempts to reform the city's Charter to hold the chiefs more accountable.

Cunliffe, who earned $90,243, ran one of the city's largest departments, with 1,700 employees and a $127-million budget. General Services, the city's purchasing agent, also let large contracts and provided politically sensitive perks--including office space, telephones and automobiles to council members. She had every right to challenge her accusers, but her case should have been settled on its merits.

Buying out Cunliffe may indeed save the city money. By approving the deal, however, the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Bradley have allowed wimpish politics to triumph over principle at City Hall. Again.

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