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Editorial

Taking responsibility at L.A. City Hall

The mayor should acknowledge accountability for the big payout to former Housing Authority chief Rudolf Montiel.

December 11, 2011
  • Rudolf Montiel received a $1.2-milion payout when he was ousted in March from L.A.'s Housing Authority.
Rudolf Montiel received a $1.2-milion payout when he was ousted in March… (Los Angeles Times )

Of course Los Angeles residents have every right and reason to be outraged about former Housing Authority chief Rudolf Montiel being paid nearly $1.2 million to just go away. Outrage is warranted, as well, over the lavish spending by agency officials to travel around the country, to take limousine rides and to eat and drink high on the hog, as reported by KCET-TV's "SoCal Connected." In the scheme of things, though, the most important question left unanswered is not how much money Housing Authority officials spent on themselves or bestowed on Montiel that could and should have been spent housing people in need. It's this: Who's in charge here?

We know who it should be. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appoints almost all city department general managers and executive directors and almost all members of the unpaid citizen commissions that are supposed to oversee them. Most commissioners formally serve five-year terms, but it's an open secret that commission appointees are required to sign undated resignation letters that the mayor can activate when it suits his purposes. Department chiefs and commissioners serve at his pleasure. They are his eyes and ears on the day-to-day workings of city departments. They are his cabinet. He is responsible for them and their actions.

The Housing Authority is a bit different. It is an agency formed under federal and state law, funded largely by the federal government, to administer federal housing programs such as Section 8. But that doesn't let Villaraigosa off the hook. The commissioners remain his commissioners, and the executive director is their hire — a hire they make or revoke only (another open secret) with the mayor's say-so. Just as a mayor can, by executive order, forbid commission members to lobby, require that they undergo ethics training and sign a code of conduct, and remind them that they serve at his pleasure — as Villaraigosa made clear in one of his first acts after taking office in 2005 — a mayor through proper management can stop irresponsible spending practices by making clear to commissioners and department chiefs that he will be watching. He can likewise require that they agree in advance to cooperate with city audits, even if under federal law they don't have to.

Instead of acknowledging his responsibility, Villaraigosa's staff (the mayor himself is in Asia on a trade mission) has taken pains to distance him from the situation, pointing out that Montiel was hired by commissioners appointed by the previous mayor, Jim Hahn. Maybe so, but those commissioners still serve at Villaraigosa's pleasure. The staffers also denied that the mayor knew of the payout to Montiel — and then acknowledged that yes, his office knew all along.

It may be impossible to rid City Hall of mistakes and mismanagement entirely. But the people of Los Angeles have every right to expect their elected officials to accept accountability for their management failures as well as successes.

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