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Wendy Greuel: Count her in

Patt Morrison Asks

City Council member-turned-auditor Wendy Greuel is now the messenger her colleagues don't want to see. And she's OK with that.

November 06, 2010|Patt Morrison

Out of Wendy Greuel's City Hall office window, she can see the Triforium. It's a fitting vista for the city controller: a good civic idea gone expensively bad. The Triforium was meant to be a six-story Los Angeles landmark, a charming, rainbow-lighted public carillon. Instead, it became a dark, silent, million-dollar failure -- a symbol of public money spent with fine intent and lousy outcome.

Greuel's a Valley girl who interned for Mayor Tom Bradley before she took a stab at public office herself, winning a City Council seat and the sobriquet "the Pothole Queen." Now it's been a year and change since she was elected controller. Her opponents noted that in one campaign ad, she was critical of a program she'd voted for. Since she won, she's taken to the bully pulpit of the office. She doesn't so much care how you spell Greuel, as long as you know what she's done.

What's the difference between this job and the City Council?

I don't have to sit in City Council meetings! I can pick issues that are important -- not only the day-to-day activities [of the city] but the big picture. How do we make the city better, create more jobs, spend our money effectively? It's interesting because on the other side, I wondered what it felt like to be a city controller.

What is your relationship with the council now? Have you been bumped from anyone's Christmas card list?

I'm the same person, but there's definitely a different relationship. I'm coming out with things that sometimes criticize the mayor and council and the departments, but that's the job. One council member to remain nameless actually did send me an e-mail that said, "I've taken you off my Christmas list."

Is anyone actively hostile?

I wouldn't say actively hostile. [But] I'm the messenger they don't want to see. It's not an office where you make friends; it's an office where you're sometimes pulling the sheet off to say here's actually what's happening.

Is the job proactive or reactive?

We try to be proactive. People think this office is about audits. That's a small but important part of my job; [it] gets the most attention and publicity. But we do all the financial reporting for the city; we do payroll and vendor payments; we look at cash flow.

What's the biggest change in the controller's job over the last 10 years or so?

The change in the charter. The [1999] charter changes allowed for performing audits [so] you could look at how the city is doing -- from DNA rape kits [to] whether the gang-reduction program is working [to] oversight of neighborhood councils.

I want to be known as the city controller who not only puts out great audits but also sees them implemented. That's the frustrating part. We are looking at ways we can hold the departments and the mayor and council accountable for the recommendations that come through our office. People said, "What kind of controller is she going to be?" [The defining moment] was in my first three or four days -- the Michael Jackson funeral and Lunchgate.

That's what you call the costly lunches that were brought down from Wrightwood for the police officers working the Jackson funeral.

We looked at [the bill] and said, "Wow." We should be providing lunches to our first responders for the day, but we shouldn't have to pay $14 for a box lunch and [shouldn't] get them from a business outside the city and county of Los Angeles. That's not pro-business in Los Angeles. Many cops said to me, "That lunch wasn't very good." We called Subway and they said it would cost $6.75 [for] this kind of lunch.

What do voters misunderstand about the budget?

I guess that a majority of the budget -- over 60% -- is spent on public safety. So there isn't as much room to maneuver as you would like.

And people don't understand how we get our tax dollars. We get a huge amount from property tax but [also from] the transient occupancy [hotel room] tax, the documentary transfer tax [charged to record property sales], and business tax and sales tax. There should be more transparency and understanding [about] where we get our dollars.

People tell pollsters they believe half of any government budget is waste, fraud and abuse. That clearly isn't so. How do you remedy waste, fraud and abuse but disabuse people of that wrong notion?

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