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Newton: Dennis Zine talks back

The city councilman and ex-cop, who is running for L.A. controller, says he knows right from wrong, he's frugal and — well, how much time do you have?

January 21, 2013|Jim Newton
  • City Councilman Dennis Zine tearfully holds a photograph during a press conference at City Hall as he recounts his memories on the news of the death of former LAPD Chief Darrel Gates.
City Councilman Dennis Zine tearfully holds a photograph during a press… (Los Angeles Times )

When I wrote a few weeks ago that City Councilman Dennis Zine seemed an odd fit with the office of city controller, I was fairly sure I'd get an earful from him. He is, after all, running for controller.

Boy, was I right. Zine and I met recently to talk about his race, and he good-naturedly unloaded on me with his qualifications and enthusiasm for the job.

Talking so fast I could hardly keep up, Zine worked his way through a latte at a coffee shop near City Hall and raced through highlights of his life and career: Lebanese American, born in Los Angeles, LAPD officer for 33 years, twice named L.A.'s best public official, good relations with the Jewish community, something about his opposition to new sales taxes — and plans for his life as the city's chief auditor and a whole bunch about "waste, fraud and abuse."

He talked for 15 minutes before I could even edge in a question, and then only because he needed time for a breath of air and a gulp of coffee. He was, as he always is, friendly and open and entirely likable. A group of police officers training for something kept straggling by, and Zine greeted each as an old colleague. "Sanchez!" he called to one. "Hey there!" to another. They stopped, shook his hand. He grinned. "I'm a cop," he said a couple of times.

No one doubts that. Zine is still, at heart, the motor cop and police union rep he once was. My question to him, once I was allowed to ask it: Why run for controller, a job that revolves around audits, not arrests?

Zine's answer: Being a police officer is perfect training for being controller. "What does a cop know?" he asked, jumping in himself before I could guess. "He knows right from wrong."

And that's what a controller needs to know, he concluded, after first rambling through a long diversion about how he is seeking no other office and would retire after completing his tenure as controller, and about how much he gives to charity and loves Los Angeles.

Abruptly, he then jumped to his other qualification: He's frugal. Year after year, Zine said, he runs his council office on less than he's budgeted to spend, and he devotes the extra money to causes and organizations in his district. "I manage a budget," he explained.

What about the charge that he hasn't done enough to solve city spending problems in his 12 years as a council member? "When you're in the Air Force," Zine responded, "you're in the airplane, not on the ground." I don't exactly know what that means, but he said it with great conviction, then waved at another police officer.

Besides, he added, that criticism comes from opponents — primarily from his main foes, businessmen Ron Galperin and Cary Brazeman — who haven't run a council office or served constituents. As a result, they don't understand the complexities of city office, the trade-offs and compromises and devotion to a district where Zine is, by all accounts, beloved.

"It's easy to be on the outside and say, 'What has he done?'" Zine explained. That's the wrong question, he said. "Look at what I've done, not what I haven't done."

As controller, Zine said, he would convene monthly meetings of the city's general managers and force them to explain their spending and identify areas for savings. "General managers," he said, "for the most part don't like to be held accountable." He'll change that, and yet he'll also be part of the city team, prodding for improvement.

In addition, Zine said he'll root out waste and delve deeply into risk management, especially at the Police Department, where he argues that officers who create liability for the city are allowed to continue on their jobs — even get promoted.

Zine reminded me that he doesn't need this. He had a long career as a police officer and another as a council member. He's 65 years old. "I could retire, feed pigeons under the park bench."

But he sees potential for the controller's job, the opportunity to demand more from the city, to hold others accountable and make them better too. "If you're a quarterback and you throw that bomb, and there's no receiver, it's incomplete," he said.

Who could disagree?

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.

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