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The controller question

Despite the cost and time involved, a court ruling limiting the scope of the city office should be appealed.

December 21, 2009

The final judgment has been entered in the long, messy, costly and frustrating lawsuit between the city attorney and the comptroller. And now that she's lost, Controller Wendy Greuel has the power to let it drop.

She shouldn't. Greuel should appeal.

That may appear on its face to be a change of position for this page, which in the last year repeatedly called on the parties to settle the suit over the scope of the controller's audit power. But, in fact, we're staying the course. We wanted to see the suit dropped not merely because it's been an embarrassing episode in the city's history but because, like Greuel and her predecessor, Laura Chick, we were unhappy with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney's tentative ruling that appeared to make some city-funded programs immune from examination and appraisal by the controller.

The controller's power to conduct financial audits is not at issue. Greuel retains the authority that Los Angeles city controllers have had for decades to guard against embezzlement or misappropriation by tracking the flow of money through the city. The question is the scope of the power the controller won when voters in 1999 adopted a new City Charter that provides for "performance audits" -- probes and reports that gauge the efficiency of city operations. Then-City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said Chick's power did not extend to programs housed in the offices of elected officials, and he sued when she tried to audit the performance of the workers compensation functions of his office.

Appealing Mooney's ruling would not be free, of course, and the city does not have extra cash to throw around. But the alternative is even less desirable. Allowing the ruling to stand would mean that city officials could shield programs from appraisal by the controller simply by moving them under the direct authority of the mayor, the city attorney or a council member.

The Times has called on the City Council to ask voters to clarify the controller's powers with a ballot measure, and we reiterate support for such a move if the judge does not reverse his decision on appeal. A ballot measure would probably be even more expensive than an appeal. Besides, the ballot measure language discussed by council members has sounded as if it would be meant more to protect them, or to subject the controller to scrutiny, than to guarantee the controller the power to conduct performance audits of all city programs.

That means that to get it done right would require an even costlier and more difficult option: a citizen initiative placed on the ballot after a massive signature-gathering campaign. All in all, a reversal by the judge would be preferable.

But a reversal is by no means guaranteed. The new City Charter was drafted by representatives of two commissions with two distinct philosophies of city governance, and there is enough evidence in the wording of the Charter and the legislative histories to give at least some support to each view. But Greuel ran for the office with the understanding that she would have broad powers to conduct performance audits, and this page believes voters expect her to do that job -- and to defend her ability to do it.

In the meantime, it's important that Los Angeles not lose sight of the underlying conflicts that gave rise to the dispute. They are conflicts not between politicians, or even between political offices, but between competing views of how government should function.

Los Angeles has a built-in and somewhat haughty disdain for city politics and politicians. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, we and most other West Coast cities have had numerous surges of political reform, most designed to separate us from the perceived corruption of East Coast-style ward politics, patronage and political bosses. Proper functioning of government here was to be ensured by citizen commissions and by professional bureaucrats bringing to City Hall the most modern management theories and disciplines. When many smaller municipalities granted much of their mayoral and city council day-to-day administrative powers to a city manager, Los Angeles took only a partial step in that direction, creating a city administrative officer with the power to investigate and report on the performance of city programs.

But by the 1990s there was a nationwide trend toward strong municipal executives with power to act quickly and to make tough decisions, and a growing dissatisfaction with bureaucrats who were unaccountable to voters. Mayors believed they, and not city bureaucrats, should issue harsh reports on city operations. But they were also unlikely to critique their own performance. So, as the pendulum swung away from bureaucracy and toward politics, Los Angeles Charter reformers gave the controller new power to conduct performance audits, because the controller was independent, accountable at the ballot box and had a high-enough profile that audits would not be buried in City Hall paperwork.

The element of L.A.'s civic culture that remains especially wary of politics is reflected among many supporters of Mooney's ruling, including some members of the City Council. They argue that allowing the controller to audit programs housed in other politicians' offices will encourage the controller to use her power to punish her enemies and build support for a run for higher office.

And, of course, the controller could do exactly that, and be subject to destructive political retaliation, none of which would serve the underlying purpose of guaranteeing efficient functioning of city government. But the voters serve as the check on any controller excesses. We can be distrustful of both politics and bureaucracy, but at some point we must try to balance them against each other, so that they work for the city.

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