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The Mayor's Midterm Exam : How Far Has Richard Riordan Moved the City Since he Became Mayor? An Evaluation of L.A. Inc. After Two Years.

June 11, 1995|Jean Merl | Jean Merl covers the Riordan Administration for The Times. Staff writer John Schwada contributed to this story

If you're looking for the stuff of instant political symbolism, those 250 Styrofoam containers are a good place to start.

Brimming with scrambled eggs, bacon, potatoes and biscuits, they were delivered to City Hall's underground emergency operations center three hours after the Northridge earthquake struck on Jan. 17, 1994. The hungry workers' benefactor? Richard Riordan, the city's multimillionaire new mayor, who ordered up breakfast from the Original Pantry Cafe, the Downtown landmark restaurant that he bought to save it from the wrecking ball.

"I was struck by how different that was from when we had the riots," says then-Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. When the city had erupted nearly two years earlier, toward the end of Tom Bradley's 20-year tenure in L.A.'s top political job, there were no promptly dispatched meals from anywhere. "There was a meeting to try to decide how to feed our employees. The troops were getting hungry, and we were having a meeting about it," recalls Yaroslavsky, now a county supervisor.

Sure, Riordan delivered breakfast. But making a speedy delivery on his campaign promises is another matter. "I came in thinking I could make tremendous changes immediately. It didn't happen that way," he says now as he nears the midpoint of his tenure and prepares to run again.

Yet there are signs that the businessman/lawyer-turned-mayor has gone beyond the can-do clich'8e of the Styrofoam containers and is actually making good on two key goals he set for himself on the 1993 campaign trail: a safer city and an efficient, accountable municipal government.

Even Riordan's critics grant him this: Two years out, the LAPD has grown by about 500 officers, crime is down and the nonprofit alliance he created has raised millions to bring the department into the computer age. He got the City Council to authorize mone y for more overtime pay for police and to turn over some desk jobs to civilian employees so officers could spend more time on the beat. There are new patrol cars for the first time in years. Nationwide, crime dropped 3% last year; it was down 12.7% in Los Angeles.

Helping the police is politically popular. But changing the City Hall culture--grown sluggish in the later years of Bradley's Administration--is downright revolutionary. Riordan is driving toward a customer-friendly, highly efficient operation, an L.A. Inc. that will deliver more services for less money through a corporate-style system of accountability. He's got department heads churning out written goals that will help determine whether they get raises--or the sack.

Having recast Los Angeles as a corporation, Riordan is now more than ever its CEO. Although he took office constrained by the "weak mayor" system dictated by the City Charter, all of a sudden he's carrying a big stick. Voters in April handed Riordan broad new powers to hire and fire general managers. The city's electorate had said no four times before, but with Riordan leading--and raising big bucks for--the campaign, the measure sailed through with 62% of the vote.

Riordan may be able to cite some significant accomplishments. But the downside is that he's achieved many of them using a boardroom--perhaps even back-room--style that has fueled fears of conflict of interest. He's been accused of excluding African Americans from his inner circle and of indifference to black concerns.

Those fears have grown as Willie L. Williams, the city's first black police chief, has locked into an escalating battle with police commissioners and the man who appointed them--Riordan. Those close to Williams say the chi ef believes the mayor is behind his problems with the commission, which has criticized the chief's management of the department and reprimanded him for allegedly lying about receiving free Las Vegas hotel accomodations.

While the drama playing out over Williams consumes the city's attention now, Riordan's legacy--as well as his reelection prospects--are likely to hinge on how well he does in improving the local economic climate. After all, should the city expect anything less of the rich and successful businessman it elected two years ago to "Turn L.A. Around" ?

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It is ironic that the administration, headed by a man who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, has taken so long to get an economic recovery program up and running. "It's surprising to me that this is where he would screw it up, " says Joel Kotkin, a business and cultural analyst and International Fellow at Pepperdine University who calls himself a "great Riordan admirer." "The intent is certainly pro-business, and there have been some good initiatives that in the long run will help, but things are taking too long and there are companies that need help and attention now." Kotkin also says the Riordan team has been trying too hard to get money out of Washington.

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