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A Major Player Prefers Backstage

Ronald Deaton, chief legislative analyst for L.A., wields power quietly.

September 15, 2003|Matea Gold and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

He's been called the 16th City Council member, the most powerful person in Los Angeles City Hall and, on occasion, he's even been compared to God.

As the city's chief legislative analyst, Ronald F. Deaton is charged with analyzing policy and providing the City Council with dispassionate advice. But his job stretches far beyond that of a policy wonk. An unassuming figure with thick glasses, jowly features and a raspy chortle, Deaton functions as the council's consigliere and Los Angeles' de facto city manager.

He structured the financing for Staples Center, negotiated the consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee reforms of the Police Department and vetted the city's park and buildings bonds.

But those are just the big things. After 37 years with the city, Deaton personally handles almost every one of the hundreds of pieces of paper that pass through the ornate council chamber each week, administering everything from moving furniture to hiring police officers.

During his reign, the job of the chief legislative analyst -- or simply "CLA" as the position is known around City Hall -- has evolved to the point where Deaton operates as the council's policy writer, political strategist and gatekeeper.

"He has taken the structural power of the office and leveraged it with his intellect and his personal skills to make him probably the most influential person in city government," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Deaton friend who has served 19 years on the City Council.

Added downtown activist Brady Westwater: "I would call him God, but I'm afraid that would be a demotion."

With term limits opening the door this year to a new batch of council members unfamiliar with the city's bureaucracy, the 15-member council relies increasingly on Deaton's institutional memory and guidance.

From the moment new lawmakers step into City Hall, Deaton is by their side, helping them secure their city cars and furnish their offices. He is their employee, but they turn to him on matters large and small, seeking advice on strategy or clues to navigating city departments -- even help in getting along with each other.

The dynamic has led to an unspoken pact between the elected officials and the quiet bureaucrat: He shows them how things work and they give him power.

"Now, more than ever, he is the man that runs the council," said former Councilman Richard Alatorre. "He's the only one who has the breadth of experience and knowledge about how government works in Los Angeles."

Deaton is "the brain and brawn behind the City Council," said former Mayor Richard Riordan, who left office in 2001. "If he's on your side, he can really make things happen. If he's against you, you have some problems." Deaton, who avoids interviews, dismissed the topic of his influence with a combination of amusement and irritation during a recent, and rare, on-the-record session.

"If I was, in fact, that powerful, they'd get rid of me," he said while sitting in his second-floor office, directly below that of Mayor James K. Hahn. Photos of his wife and grandchildren gazed out from around the office. On his desk was a book titled "The Conquerors."

In many ways, Deaton, 60, is an odd fit as the right-hand man to the Los Angeles City Council. He is a Republican who works for one of the most liberal bodies in the United States; an Orange County resident who has dedicated his career to shaping Los Angeles; a history buff in a city notoriously forgetful about its past.

An avid reader of military history, Deaton brings a keen strategic mind to his job, comparing the process of navigating the city bureaucracy with that of winning a Revolutionary War battle.

"Don't get in and get outflanked," he said about his approach. "If they're going to come after you, know where they're going to come after you."

His mastery of strategy helped Deaton outmaneuver Hahn this spring in a budget showdown between the mayor and the council. Hahn wanted to hire 320 additional police officers, an expense that struck Deaton as financially unsound. He produced a budget analysis that showed the city could be facing shortfalls of as much as $280 million the next year if the police hires went through.

But council members were in a politically tricky situation: Opposing a budget they considered fiscally irresponsible would put them in the unpopular position of voting against police officers. Councilman Nick Pacheco, for one, said the standoff left him unable to sleep.

Deaton Crafts Plan

Enter Deaton, with a plan that endorsed the concept of expanding the Police Department but delayed approving the money for it until the city's financial picture was clearer. Council President Alex Padilla presented it to his colleagues and they fell in line, camping out in the council chamber for a rare afternoon session to overrule the mayor.

It's a testament to his influence that officials who criticize Deaton's role do not want to question him on the record.

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