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L.A. County chief battles for his legacy

The board chose William T Fujioka to overhaul management but now has curbed his power. It's the sort of political street fight familiar to the official, who navigated around Eastside gangs as a kid.

June 22, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • As Los Angeles Countys chief executive officer, William T Fujioka is facing new foes and perhaps the biggest challenge of his long career.
As Los Angeles Countys chief executive officer, William T Fujioka is facing… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Four years ago, Los Angeles County supervisors embarked on an ambitious effort to streamline management of the nation's largest local government, choosing an experienced public sector executive, William T Fujioka, to become the region's most powerful behind-the-scenes bureaucrat.

Now, that bold experiment in improving government accountability has devolved into an ugly retreat and recriminations, with a majority of the county's elected supervisors in effect kneecapping their top manager and stripping him of major responsibilities.

It's the sort of insider political street fight familiar to Fujioka, who navigated around Eastside gangs as a kid and rose to the top rungs of Los Angeles' downtown halls of government by bucking establishment heavyweights and cultivating key allies with his grit and finesse.

Fujioka's mix of skills has flummoxed opponents, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who tried to fire him a decade ago from City Hall's top administrative post. "When he cleverly undercut my abilities to get rid of him, then I began to respect his political abilities," said Riordan, who saw Fujioka then as lacking the "backbone to get things done."

As Los Angeles County's chief executive officer, Fujioka is facing new foes and perhaps the biggest challenge of his 34-year career. The management structure he was hired to impose on an unwieldy array of agencies with nearly 100,000 employees is faltering amid claims that decision-making has become more — not less — sluggish.

This month, the board will take back control of two large, chronically troubled agencies, one responsible for abused and neglected children and the other dealing with juvenile offenders. And more reductions in his power and office budget could be in the offing.

At 58, Fujioka is battling for his carefully nurtured professional legacy and the historic reforms he was hired to implement. "This," he said, "is more than a bump in the road. This is extremely frustrating to me."

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When Fujioka's grandfather, Fred Jiro Fujioka, was hauled away in the World War II Japanese internment, the family lost an Oldsmobile dealership, a trucking business and real estate holdings.

Fujioka's father, William Sr., was forced to quit attending UC Berkeley and later settled for positions at a produce market, insurance company and trucking firm and in city government. When he came home from the war, the family struggled to reestablish itself in working-class sections of Boyle Heights and Montebello. Fujioka says his father and friends fell in with a neighborhood gang. "I was never jumped in," he said.

Fujioka's "first political lesson" came on the streets, dealing with gang leaders, said Los Angeles City Councilman Tony Cardenas, a friend. "He had to learn how to wade through that gantlet.... You can't avoid them, and you need to figure out how to finesse your way out of there without offending anyone."

As a young man, Fujioka embraced his grandfather's desire to restore the family's stature. After college, he cut his long hair and took a low-level county personnel job, beginning a steady, disciplined ascent. By the early 1990s, he was a top manager in the massive county hospital system. By 1999, he was at City Hall as chief administrative officer; the top fiscal and analysis post is regarded as one of the most influential in city government.

When Fujioka was named to the position, Riordan was eager to implement a City Charter change that would increase the mayor's control over city operations.

But several months into the effort, Riordan aide Noelia Rodriguez told The Times that under Fujioka's watch, the city had moved "much further away" from the kind of management changes envisioned.

Riordan and others criticized Fujioka as a broker of whispered side deals who was adept at deflecting blame.

But the council thwarted Riordan's efforts to fire Fujioka. Councilwoman Jan Perry, who worked as a council aide at the time and admired Fujioka's skills, said he "was always in the hot seat" but "did a great job for the city."

County supervisors thought so too. In 2007, they hired him to implement their own management overhaul. Fujioka was seen as a seasoned leader with a knack for working behind the scenes to get things done.

In public, Fujioka moves deliberately and is soft-spoken and guarded. Out of the spotlight, he can be candid — and profane. At his installation ceremony, Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti joked that Fujioka "has a vocabulary that would make a sailor, but not a [county] supervisor, blush."

Even those close to him sometimes find they don't know him well. Many attending his installation for the county job were surprised to learn he had married longtime City Hall lobbyist Darlene Kuba. He told The Times that the relationship became romantic after he left his city job and noted that his county contract prohibits Kuba from lobbying officials there.

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