Moving to address problems in Los Angeles' embattled Transportation Department, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday nominated one of his closest deputies to lead the agency and installed a top police commander to oversee reform.
The department has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, including sharply critical audits and inquiries into a little-known parking ticket appeals operation.
Two city traffic officers were placed on leave recently after allegations that they participated in a pornographic film involving use of a city vehicle and city uniforms.
Villaraigosa said in a statement that he nominated Jaime de la Vega, who served as deputy mayor of transportation, because he "is an experienced public policy leader and manager with extensive experience working in city government, reforming departmental operations and developing and implementing transportation projects at both the local and regional level."
De la Vega gained unwelcome notoriety years ago for driving a Hummer SUV while promoting the mayor's ambitious mass transit agenda. But he stopped taking the vehicle to work and now says he uses it only on weekends for trips to Home Depot and the like.
De la Vega has been one of the more influential officials developing transportation plans and strategy within the city in recent years. He worked to secure the passage of Measure R, the half-cent sales tax for transportation projects passed by voters in 2008. And he has pushed the mayor's America Fast Forward plan, which aims to accelerate funding for local transportation projects.
De la Vega said Friday that one of his top priorities will be to "really take a hard look at the management of the department and make improvements." A key goal is to restore public confidence that the department is well run, he said.
He also said the department needs to focus on helping deliver Measure R transit projects and the city's bicycle plan, among other initiatives. He will serve as interim general manager until the City Council approves his appointment. His salary of approximately $149,000 could rise to between $193,432 and $290,023 in the new position, officials said.
Villaraigosa also temporarily appointed Police Department Commander Michael C. Williams to oversee reform in the Transportation Department's parking enforcement division. Williams, who is assistant commanding officer of the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, said one of his priorities will be to see whether high-tech management systems can improve accountability and communication.
Amir Sedadi, who was interim general manager of the department, will stay on as assistant general manager.
City Councilman Dennis Zine, chairman of the Audits and Governmental Efficiency Committee, said the new appointments could open the door to major structural changes at the department. Five other executives have led the agency since February 2002, which Zine said signals substantial organizational problems.
One option could be to put the department's parking enforcement operations under the Police Department and merge other parts of the agency into other city departments.
City Controller Wendy Greuel, whose office conducted recent audits of the Transportation Department, said de la Vega has signaled that he wants greater transparency and accountability.
"We'll be working together to conduct a department-wide management audit," Greuel said in a statement.
In her most recent report on the department, Greuel highlighted an obscure "Gold Card Desk" that was available for elected officials and their aides to fast-track citation reviews for their constituents and possibly have fines reduced or eliminated.
Greuel said that 1,000 tickets were dismissed through that desk — some without justification — in a single two-year period. She raised the specter that some may have received special treatment through the desk. Some at City Hall said the program was comparable to other constituent services, but Villaraigosa ordered the desk closed the next day, saying that even the appearance of preferential treatment is unacceptable.
Greuel vowed to investigate the 1,000 dismissed tickets and issued a subpoena to the Transportation Department earlier this week. She said she was concerned that the agency was not providing full and immediate access to documentation about the Gold Card program and the expunged tickets.
Another Greuel audit in April found that the transportation agency missed out on up to $15 million in potential revenues because it had gone soft on chronic scofflaws who rack up multiple unpaid parking tickets.
Greuel said she hoped De la Vega can stabilize the department and "that he will be able to tackle some of the serious problems my audits and recent investigations have uncovered."