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An old-time shakedown

L.A.'s ex-transit chief is ripping off taxpayers. Voters should get a chance to keep it from happening again.

October 24, 2007

City Hall often seems to be haunted by some ghostly hand reaching from a dusty and long-dead charter provision to grab city government, shake out all voter-imposed reforms and yank it back into the outmoded ways of the past. This week's outrageous payout of $95,000 to fired Los Angeles Transportation General Manager Gloria Jeff is the latest such horror. Jeff's virtual extortion, ratified by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Councilman Bernard C. Parks, scoffs at voter demands that city government be more accountable.

City department managers were once the governmental undead, virtually immune from firing. A mayor could dump a top manager only if the City Council agreed, and even then, the manager was protected by the Civil Service system and could be removed only for cause. Voters could pick a new mayor and expect new policies, but department chiefs would just dig in their heels and continue doing whatever they wanted. Sure, they'd say, we'll leave. If you pay us a lot of money to go.

Voters responded by stripping department chiefs of Civil Service protection, then by removing the City Council from the firing process. Since 2000, city department managers have been a cabinet of at-will managers, answerable to a mayor with (finally) true executive powers. Now if traffic isn't improving, voters can hold the mayor to account. He can no longer simply shrug his shoulders and blame some unresponsive bureaucrat he can't get rid of.

So Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had every right to fire Jeff for being ineffective, or for no reason at all. His decision should have been the end of it -- and would have been, except for a phantom limb in the City Charter. Jeff grabbed on to that ridiculous procedural relic and petitioned the City Council to hire her back by a supermajority vote. The council wasn't going to back her, but the gambit bought her time to file a legal claim, allowing Delgadillo's lieutenant and Parks, sitting as the city claims board, to award her walking-away money, just as sure as if she had been a Civil Service-protected manager from a bygone era.

Previous ex-managers who used this process to squeeze money out of the city at least went through the motions of writing a report or doing something else under contract to justify their payouts. Not Jeff. All she is doing in exchange for her $95,000 is not suing. Voters once again feel the chill grip of city charters past, and may have to take to the ballot one more time to finally drive a stake through the notion of the untouchable city department manager.

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