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Face time with Mayor Villaraigosa

Asked why he hired Austin Beutner, the mayor says he needed an outsider with the right know-how.

January 31, 2010|Steve Lopez

Mayor Villaraigosa and I have had our ups and downs.

We had a couple of dinners early in our relationship, and then he never called. I think he got distracted.

In fact, during most of his first four years in office, he was focused on things other than City Hall -- like trying to take over the schools and considering a run for governor. Some might suggest all that distraction helped dig the hole we're in today.

He was so hard to find in Los Angeles during the Hillary Clinton campaign, I once had to chase him all the way to Texas. Back in L.A., we couldn't seem to work out a time to patch things up. Earlier this month, he even stood me up to appear on a soap opera.

So I couldn't believe that on Friday morning I was headed to City Hall, having been granted a full hour with his honor to talk about what's broken in this town and whether he can fix it.

He greeted me like we were old chums. Handshake. Smile. Then we got down to business.

The first thing I wanted to know was why Villaraigosa hired banking billionaire Austin Beutner to grow the local economy and rattle cages at City Hall, giving Beutner control over 13 city departments.

Why couldn't the mayor do that stuff on his own?

To my surprise, he told me he needed an outsider with the right know-how, because neither he nor anyone on his staff measured up.

"We don't have anybody like that," he said.

But did he take it personally when Beutner told him what a dysfunctional mess City Hall can be?

"I wasn't defensive about it," Villaraigosa said, telling me that if you keep hearing the same criticisms, "you've got to be able to look in the mirror."

Villaraigosa said -- several times -- that he considers himself a dreamer and visionary, but he thinks it's fair for people to ask whether he's delivered as much as he could have.

To be honest, I'd rather have a mayor who's as much of a doer as a visionary. But if that's too much to ask, it's nice to know he recognizes he can use some help, especially given the huge financial challenges facing every level of government.

The mayor said Beutner came across as a guy who "knows how to put a deal together." Beutner intends to use the authority of City Hall to stir job growth at the ports, the airports and in green projects related to initiatives at the Department of Water and Power.

OK, I was impressed by Beutner, too, when I talked to him last week. But let's be honest.

This could be a disaster.

Isn't it possible, I asked, that being a success in merchant banking and equity investing doesn't mean you can create jobs in a sunken economy or wrestle alligators at City Hall?

Or that Beutner will resent the dirty work of confronting union bosses the mayor is too timid to alienate? Or get tired of driving a pro-business agenda for a mayor with a pro-labor history?

No, wait, the mayor said. This isn't about pro-business versus pro-labor.

"The agenda is pro-jobs," he said.

"It's clear that the way we've been doing it in the past -- yes, under my administration, and previous administrations -- doesn't work."

For L.A.'s sake, I hope the mayor is right about Beutner.

Too bad the new czar wasn't here in time to ask Villaraigosa why he backed a five-year package of raises for DWP employees. Not only were DWP salaries already the envy of the entire public employee universe, but as the mayor tossed a bone to one powerful union, he was contemplating firings in other departments to fill a deep budget deficit.

I know from readers that there was lots of cynicism about that. But the top Villaraigosa criticism I hear is that he's a photo-op guy. As in, why do we get 10 news conferences a day about the rain and rarely any at all about the fiscal disaster?

"So much of this job is promoting the city," the mayor told me, and in times of natural disaster or crisis, he has to soothe people and allay fears. "A mayor has to be present."

But we've got a financial crisis, I said, and he has to be present there, too.

"You're right," Villaraigosa said.

Just because Villaraigosa hasn't been talking about the budget in public doesn't mean he isn't working on it, said Deputy Mayor Jay Carson, who told me his boss has one or two long strategy sessions a day.

Maybe so. But if you're going to give raises to well-paid employees, fire those whose absence will impact taxpayers, and hand 13 city departments over to a civilian who's never run a single one, you ought to be more open with the citizenry about what the heck is going on.

Toward the end of my hour with the mayor, we kicked around some initiatives he could take on that don't cost much. Maybe he can rally people to take up tutoring in low-performing schools, he said. He'd like to start a campaign to lower childhood obesity and diabetes rates through healthier living. And he's all for closing off some streets to bicycles on certain days of the week.

But he doesn't want to make the mistake, he added, of spreading himself too thin.

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