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Sally Reed's Legacy to L.A. County: Fiscal Real Politik

April 21, 1996|Bill Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning and Development Report, a monthly newsletter. His book on the politics of urban planning in Southern California will be published by Solano Press Books

VENTURA — Sally R. Reed, who's leaving her post as chief administrative officer of Los Angeles County, loves to tell the story about the time she returned a lost dog to her Pasadena neighbor. She didn't figure the neighbor would know who she was, but her name did ring a bell. "Oh, yeah," the neighbor said. "You're the don't-kill-the-messenger lady."

For 2 1/2 years, Reed specialized in delivering bad financial news to the Board of Supervisors, and, in the end, she decided the frustrations of doing so outweighed the rewards. She became the third county CAO to be chewed up by the job in the last decade.

The sheer turnover says something about the rewards of working in local government. Reed's departure triggered some huzzahs among her enemies--especially the public-employee unions that believe she loves to lay off people. Yet, despite the controversy she inevitably created, Reed actually did accomplish something during her time in Los Angeles: She got the politicians to begin thinking about the hard fiscal realities that the county will have to face every year for the foreseeable future.

The post of county chief administrative officer is probably the most thankless governmental job anywhere. Los Angeles County, with about 80,000 employees, deals mostly with the underbelly of society that everybody would prefer to ignore--social services, indigent health care, criminal justice. Yet, it's also the center of a dizzying set of political agendas, including five elected supervisors of varying ideological stripes, an elected sheriff, an elected district attorney and powerful employee unions.

This unstable mix is made all the more volatile by the fact that the county simply doesn't have enough money to do its job. State law requires it to deliver certain basic services, which, in a county of 9 million people, is a behemoth task requiring a huge bureaucracy. But other state laws, in the form of Proposition 13, don't give the county enough property tax to do the job right. Appointed by the Board of Supervisors, the CAO is really a kind of glorified political traffic cop trying to balance the budget, keep the county's doors upon and hold the lid on all conflicting agendas simultaneously.

Given this job description, the temptation for most CAOs it to try to find a pot of gold to make everything all right. James C. Hankla, now the city manager of Long Beach, sought to raise extra cash by developing the county's real estate during his 1985-87 term. Richard Dixon, the former county treasurer who succeeded Hankla, was a nationally recognized miracle worker with public debt. He sought to balance the budget by endlessly floating bonds. Hired in 1993 from Santa Clara County, where she established a strong budget-cutting reputation, Reed forsook pots of gold in favor of castor oil. Among other things, she proposed laying off 20% of the county work force and closing County-USC Hospital, a key piece of the county's health-care system.

The prevailing opinion among liberals is that Reed is little more than a bean-counter, a kind of public-sector equivalent of corporate chieftains who have little idea of what the company makes but reflexively lay off people whenever profits are under pressure. True, Reed is a bean-counter by nature. True, she lacks a broad, affirmative vision of what government can do. And she minces few words when she asserts that the end result of her policies in Los Angeles County would have been to deny government services to many people, most of them poor. "We are going to be like a lifeboat that can hold only so many passengers," she said in an interview a few months ago.

Yet, Reed has always been able to employ her bean-counting nature for worthwhile strategic purposes. By imposing fiscal discipline and adopting a hard-nosed persona, in which "honest accounting" was supposedly an extension of her own personal integrity, Reed has sought, mostly successfully, to force the county's power structure into making hard financial decisions when the natural political inclination would have been to skate around the problem. One example of her approach was the way she forced a resolution on the long-delayed Walt Disney Concert Hall.

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