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A New Broom Won't Sweep Clean in L.A.

December 13, 1987|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarsky is chief of The Times' City-County Bureau.

When the nation elects a new President next year, voters are assured that the winner will bring in a team reflecting his philosophy.

Yet that will not be the case in Los Angeles in 1989, the occasion of the next mayoral election. Whether Tom Bradley wins a fifth term or is defeated, the same department heads will be running the city, protected from firing by Civil Service rules that were supposed to immunize local government from crooked politics. A new mayor, seeking a fresh approach for the city's major problems of planning and traffic congestion, would not be able to replace the general managers of the two departments in charge of those areas, planning and transportation.

The powerlessness of the mayor in such important matters was pointed up recently when Bradley tried to fire two department heads that he felt were guilty of misconduct, Sylvia Cunliffe of General Services and Fred Croton of Cultural Affairs. Cunliffe agreed to retire and Croton resigned, escaping the embarrassment of dismissal.

Particularly illustrative was the case of Cunliffe, the boss of a giant housekeeping department whose power to install office equipment, issue city cars and repair ancient air-conditioning vents during the hot months gave her great power over politicians who love comfort and perks.

Cunliffe is a small woman with a commanding presence. She wears her dark brown hair in a tight arrangement. Her infrequent smiles are icy. To see this tiny presence walk down the hall is to be immediately aware that she is not easily crossed.

City Hall regulars always assumed that council members' fears of having their air conditioning shut off in September or getting a stripped-down Ford Tempo would keep Cunliffe in office forever. But she made the mistake of spreading damaging, confidential law-enforcement information about a whistle-blower in her department, thus crossing the mayor. Bradley hates to fire people. And he is a pragmatic sort, not burdened with an overwhelming number of deep ideological beliefs. Civil liberties and a dislike of abuse of police power are among them, however. When he heard what Cunliffe had done in the whistle-blower incident, the woman he once had enthusiastically appointed was on her way out.

On her way, but not completely out. For she invoked complicated Civil Service procedures that make firing possible only if the mayor and the City Council can prove wrongdoing before hearing officers and in court. The procedures favor the accused and it would cost the city substantial time and legal expenses to win such a fight. Cunliffe, knowing that and realizing some council support, toughed it out. In the end, she was allowed to retire, with the comfort of a substantial city pension and without a distasteful firing on her resume.

This was someone the mayor thought had done wrong and had gone against one of his deep beliefs. With that in mind, think about the impossibility of a new mayor firing a department head because of philosophical differences. As a result, Los Angles is in the hands of department general managers who cannot be removed even if they disagree with the way a new mayor wants to deal with growth or traffic.

The system was the product of late 19th- and early 20th-Century municipal reformers who were appalled at the corruption in New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, St. Louis, Los Angeles and other big and middle-sized cities. As the Industrial Revolution poured wealth into these cities, particularly those in the Midwest and East, freewheeling entrepreneurs bribed mayors and council members for streetcar and garbage collection franchises and city construction contracts. Mayors built political machines by passing out everything from city jobs to buckets of coal for the poor immigrants who moved into their cities.

It was a mess that offended the moral standards of academics, some honest businessmen and other reformers in each city. Much of their disgust stemmed from horror at rampant dishonesty. Some of it, however, came from elitism, dismay at the way often-uneducated political bosses and their immigrant armies had seized power.

The result was a philosophy of reform: The running of a city was almost a science and politics had no place in it. There was no Republican or Democratic way to collect garbage, as Hiram Johnson, California's reformist governor (1911-17), said. Rather, trained specialists, protected from elections by Civil Service rules, would run cities in a rational manner. Much of municipal government was removed from the electoral process.

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