Former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan has been in the news lately, arguing that city leaders need to take drastic steps to make Los Angeles more business friendly and get the city functioning again. He has blamed public sector unions for every woe facing the region, including the current financial crisis and potholes on his street in Brentwood.
Mayor Riordan is not just crying in the wilderness. His threat to put a draconian pension-cutting initiative on the ballot played a major part in prompting the City Council last month to hastily adopt its own pension-cutting plan – a plan that almost certainly will be thrown out by the courts as a violation of existing collective bargaining agreements.
Riordan’s resurrection as a major political force begs a fundamental question: How successful was he at bringing business and jobs to L.A. and overseeing scarce public resources when he was running the city?
Riordan was, in fact, one of our least effective mayors. During his two terms from 1993 to 2001, he created a mostly ineffectual economic development program that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on the creation of low-wage jobs and little else. One of his biggest initiatives, the federally funded Community Development Bank, failed miserably. And he created a legacy of insider, backroom deals at the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which contributed to the ultimate demise of that institution last year.
In 2000, a Ford Foundation-funded project released a report on the activities of Riordan’s Business Team between 1995 and 1999 (full disclosure: LAANE participated in the study along with UCLA economists and graduate students). Interviews with a randomly sampled list of Business Team “clients” found that the Mayor’s Business Team had grossly exaggerated its record of success, and that only 31 percent of the firms that the Business Team claimed to have helped had actually received any substantive assistance. In addition, researchers were not able to find a single firm that claimed that it would have made a different business location decision absent the taxpayer-funded assistance provided by the Business Team. Despite Riordan’s outrage at the study’s findings, his administration was never able to successfully contradict the results of this comprehensive review of its activities.
As for Riordan’s record with the city’s redevelopment agency, I saw firsthand when I was appointed to the CRA Board of Commissioners in 2002, the dangerous culture of secrecy and backroom deals that the Riordan administration had created. In project after project, key records were missing, major contracts were unsigned and “deals” had been negotiated in ways that clearly favored developer interests over the interests of the taxpayers funding the projects. While there were clearly well-meaning people who served in the Riordan administration and who worked hard to achieve results for the City’s taxpayers, the culture of insider dealing and lack of standards and accountability seemed to come from Riordan himself.
Riordan and his defenders have pointed to several large-scale development projects greenlighted during his tenure—such as the Staples Center, LA Live, NoHo Commons and Hollywood and Highland – as evidence that the former mayor successfully used taxpayer resources to create jobs and economic development. However, those seminal projects – which included hundreds of millions of dollars of public subsidies – were turned into good taxpayer investments because of vigorous organizing by coalitions of community, labor and environmental organizations, and the active support of City Council members and responsible developers. Riordan was not helpful in ensuring that the huge public investment in those projects resulted in strong benefits to the communities around them.
Even worse, Riordan vigorously opposed several city laws designed to give workers and communities the benefit of city investment in economic development. This included a city Worker Retention Ordinance, enacted in 1995, the city’s first Living Wage Ordinance, enacted in 1997 and amended in 1998, the City’s Equal Benefits Ordinance, enacted in 1998, and the City’s Responsible Contractor Ordinance, enacted in 2000. Mayor Riordan actively opposed all of these laws, vetoing the key ones like the Living Wage Ordinance and refusing to sign the others.
Richard Riordan got a lot of things wrong when he was mayor. Current elected officials should be wary about taking the former mayor’s advice today.