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A City Worker Protection That May Have Outlived Its Usefulness

November 27, 1994|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)

The Riordan Administration wants to tighten its control over the managers of the city's bureaucracy in a city unaccustomed to serious executive management. A safe prediction: One man's sense of managerial accounta bility will be another man's political interference.

The Administration's new directive, in effect, attempts to make the mayor's office the gatekeeper for city-department business. In reporting to the City Council, general managers are asked to go through the mayor's office, which will decide if the city's Chief Administrative Officer should get into the act. Previously, the CAO was obliged to file a report on every matter of city business, thus slowing down governance.

The streamlining directive will probably stick until someone decides the City Council needs to know directly. But if the Administration truly seeks to aggressively manage Los Angeles government, it will need a better understanding of what is, and what is not, an appropriate balance of power in the city.

The recent flap over the demotion of the Los Angeles Police Department's No. 2 chief, Bernard C. Parks, illustrates the tension between accountability and interference. Few doubt the challenges that Police Chief Willie L. Williams faces in reshaping his department along the lines recommended by the Christopher commission and in building up his force. Foremost among them is that he is accountable, because of Proposition F, to a mayor who wants a bigger and more efficient LAPD, while the officers--and principal carriers of the department's culture--who will implement the reforms and hire the officers are not. They are protected by civil service.

Management, under such circumstances, is a delicate business, at best. And any pressure for change--as Richard Riordan and the City Council exerted in the Parks' case--that is perceived to be coming from outside the LAPD will be viewed as a hostile act of interference.

This question of managerial control--or political interference--extends to the entire city work force. Because of civil service, no public official in the city can wave a big stick and expect compliance, because no official has the necessary responsibility for which he or she is being held accountable: They cannot offer much in the way of rewards, and they certainly cannot fire subordinates. It is not even unknown for their subordinates to make as much or more than they do. This is a critical difference between public and private management.

From the perspective of elected officials, the city's departments seem to roll on inexorably, controlled by their own employee contracts and inner cultures. We assume the mayor is in charge, but his legal authority is extremely limited. The general managers do not form the mayor's Cabinet. They may be hired by him if a vacancy occurs, but he cannot fire them.

The seat of government is the City Council, but even it has limited authority over city departments. Term limits have amplified the power imbalance, because elected officials have only eight years to demonstrate their leadership abilities, while general managers can hang around for decades.

Maybe we could get by if there were someone to motivate general managers and city employees, help them feel more a part of an important undertaking. But managers have not had a raise in years, department budgets are continually slashed and years of a job freeze and attrition have cost the city its most promising employees and a great deal in morale. Riordan, while personally popular, came into office with a staff determined to make the city conform to the standards of the private sector. In turn, his staff, with few exceptions, has struck the city's work force as arrogant and inexperienced in public affairs.

Although recognizing the need to improve, the Administration would be better served if its staff were a little more respectful and trusting, particularly since they do not have the authority to act otherwise. Ironically, it is the council that is taking the lead in addressing management in a more open and appropriate form. Councilmen Marvin Braude and Mark Ridley-Thomas are seeking to put a Charter reform measure on the April ballot that would provide for the removal of general managers by the mayor and a vote of eight council members.

Asking who is accountable to whom, and how accountability should be allocated in city government, are fair questions. In finding answers, we should rethink the rationale for civil-service protection, particularly at the managerial level. The need for job security in the public sector today is not the same as it was 100 years ago. There are safeguards in the law that did not exist then.

But whatever conclusions we reach, we should consider them in the broader context of changing the rules, not by trying to assert authority that lacks the tools of ensuring obedience. Every mayor in recent memory tried to do it by fiat, and each one failed. If Riordan wants to leave the government in better shape than he found it, his only option is to support the council's Charter reform.

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