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Richard Riordan, unleashed

L.A.'s former mayor is not too popular with city officials right now with his talk of the city falling into bankruptcy.

May 08, 2010|Patt Morrison

Richard Riordan spent eight years as mayor of Los Angeles, but he didn't start his civic engagement with L.A. when he was sworn in, and he didn't end it after he was termed out. Since then, he's become part tribal elder, part fun uncle, but just now the City Council isn't sending any love his way. It's pretty irked by Riordan's warnings that the city may have to resort to bankruptcy to save itself.

Riordan's post-mayoral resume includes a short stint as California Secretary of Education -- a still-public life in the public eye. Personally and through his foundation, the attorney/investor/venture capitalist has given away what he figures is tens of millions of dollars to L.A. causes. I've known Riordan since he first ran for mayor. We get along, even though he's a Paul Johnson-history kind of guy and I'm a Howard Zinn kind of gal. At 80, he bikes, skis, walks his goldendoodle, Billy, and exhausts the rest of us.

You've suggested bankruptcy as an option for L.A.; it's a word most people associate with failure and misery.

Bankruptcy is not a bad word. Bankruptcy means that you can go into court, restructure so you can continue to function. Insolvency is a bad word. Insolvency is when you don't have the money to pay ordinary creditors, so right now L.A. is headed quickly into insolvency. Within the next three years, the payments on pensions are going to go up from $1 billion to $3.5 billion, and we're having trouble paying [even] that $1 billion. I tell the mayor and the council, if we continue the same pension programs, the same healthcare programs, we will absolutely go into bankruptcy because [it's] the only way we will be able to survive.

What about reform? Is it too late?

You cannot fool around with the pensions of people who already have pensions. What we can do with new employees is change from a defined benefit pension to a 401(k) program. Also, we have hundreds of millions of dollars that we're giving to employees, retirees even, on healthcare where they really don't need it. It's not necessary to do bankruptcy if they're willing to change [to] programs we can live with over the next 10, 20 years. For current employees, you could increase the retirement age to 65.

Police and fire are a huge part of this, and as mayor you increased their benefits.

Oh yeah, [but] I can say with accuracy that all our pensions were fully funded and now they're like 50% funded. During those last years [of my administration], we were getting 12%, 13% on our investments, and we weren't as generous as Hahn or Villaraigosa [on benefits]. No question I played some of the same games they played, but the circumstances were less harmful. Eighty percent of our non-pension budget [now] goes to police and fire. Certainly we want to add police or at least keep the number where it's at, but we don't have the resources.

What would the LAPD look like?

There'd have to be a fairly significant decrease in the number of police officers. We can try to make the Police Department and the Fire Department run more efficiently. For example, eliminate the 12-hour day [and the resulting three-day workweek]. Go back to the eight-hour day. You'd add the equivalent of 400 officers. The same way with the Fire Department. New building codes [mean] we have fewer fires. We don't need as many firefighters. And if you notice, almost every time a paramedic is called, a fire truck goes. It's just the union trying to prove that you need more firefighters.

The problem is that the unions control the city. You see why our schools are so incompetent; it's because of the unions' control of the schools.

Are you making a distinction between unions that got the 40-hour workweek and unions today?

Oh, I think it's a major, major difference. There was a time when the big corporations mistreated their employees, had them working too long, underpaid, and now the unions control everything. The question is, how do you get a balance?

Some people would say, hey, he's rich, why does he care about public education?

I think every child who comes into this world has a God-given right to quality healthcare and quality education, the tools to compete successfully in life. And I think if God put me on Earth for anything, it's to give these tools to every poor child in the city. As mayor, every day when I drove to work, I thought, what can I do for poor children today? Many of the things may seem very conservative. Trying to undercut the unions sounds very conservative, but it's not -- it's liberal, with a small "l."

City charter reform gave your successors more power. Was that a good idea?

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