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Staff shake-up reflects Villaraigosa's effort to finish agenda

L.A. mayor replaces high-level aides as he narrows his focus in the face of the city's mounting budget problems.

January 05, 2010|By David Zahniser and Maeve Reston

In the six months since he began his second term, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has pushed out or reassigned at least half a dozen high-level city officials responsible for advancing his agenda on issues such as job creation, housing and the environment, according to records and interviews.

The moves, carried out by the mayor's top two managers, Chief of Staff Jeff Carr and Chief Deputy Mayor Jay Carson, were designed to correct an acknowledged weakness of Villaraigosa's first term: a lack of follow-through on certain policy goals.

The changes suggest that Villaraigosa is attempting to narrow his focus as the city faces mounting financial pressure and is now more willing to elbow aside managers who are seen as ineffective. The mayor's first-term executive team was criticized for too often shying away from internal conflicts.

Villaraigosa refused to confirm which departures were involuntary, saying only that he had 3 1/2 years to finish an ambitious agenda. "I don't plan on letting moss grow under my feet, and so we're putting together the best team we can to make sure we can do it," he said.

Carr sent a memo to mayoral staffers Dec. 23 saying the shake-up had been completed and would offer the administration an opportunity for "renewal." The mayor largely replaced the team charged with interacting with the City Council, partly to strengthen his influence as he tries to eliminate a $400-million budget gap.

Council members have shown a greater willingness in recent months to criticize the mayor's budget priorities, including his plan to hire more police. The relationship between the council and the mayor's office "has not been as strong as we need to be effective," Carr said in an interview.

The first high-profile exit was made in October by H. David Nahai, who was forced out as chief executive of the Department of Water and Power, according to two knowledgeable sources who spoke on the condition that they not be identified because it involved a personnel matter. Nahai would not discuss the terms of his departure, saying only that "it was time to move on."

The second major departure was Cecilia Estolano, head of the Community Redevelopment Agency, who resigned in November after a yearlong struggle with Villaraigosa's deputies over where her department's headquarters should be located. Sources said she was asked to leave, a scenario Estolano disputed.

The mayor's team wanted her to move into a less expensive building occupied by another city department but she repeatedly resisted, sources said.

According to interviews and correspondence obtained by The Times, Estolano had conveyed a warning to the mayor that she would resign before moving her agency to a building on the western edge of downtown.

In an e-mail sent Oct. 15, months after the dispute began, Estolano demanded an audience with the mayor to lay out her case. Carson, the chief deputy mayor, wrote back that Villaraigosa had already made up his mind and did not need a meeting.

"The mayor may want to know that he will lose the CEO of his CRA/LA over this," Estolano wrote back two minutes later. She resigned Nov. 3.

In an interview last week, Estolano said she felt strongly that her agency should not set up shop outside a redevelopment zone or the historic center of downtown. But she also said her decision to leave and take a job with the advocacy group Green For All was not driven by the building dispute.

"The timing looks weird, but I was moving on," said Estolano. She said she ultimately signed off on the move to the new building.

Two high-level city officials familiar with the talks had a sharply different version of events, saying Villaraigosa's executive team was baffled by Estolano's defiance and asked for her resignation.

Had Estolano prevailed, other department heads would have concluded that they could flout the mayor's directives without repercussions, one of the sources said.

Correspondence between the redevelopment agency and Villaraigosa's office showed the depths of the disagreement between Estolano and Deputy Mayor Robert "Bud" Ovrom, Villaraigosa's top economic development advisor.

In one e-mail, Estolano told a colleague she was "fairly sure" Ovrom was lying about the mayor's support for the move, which is designed to save the city up to $2.1 million over nine years. In another e-mail, Estolano confronted Ovrom directly. "You are focused on this, not the mayor," she wrote Ovrom on Aug. 25. "I'm confident he's more interested in what CRA is doing to create jobs, support businesses and build housing. . . . We should be focused on jobs and businesses, rather than the distraction of moving the boxes around."

Carr and Carson declined to comment on the back-and-forth with Estolano.

Nevertheless Carson confirmed that the mayor was dissatisfied with the time that it took to resolve the disagreement.

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