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Eric Garcetti on Pensions, Privatization and Port Trucking

Danny Feingold

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Frying Pan News continues its series of interviews with the leading mayoral candidates, who will face off in the March 5 primary. Part Two of our interview with City Councilmember Eric Garcetti appears today (click here to read Part One), followed Thursday by a conversation with City Controller Wendy Greuel.

Frying Pan News: Many in the business community would prefer the mayor to be a cheerleader for business, but in the last few years we’ve seen what happens when the economy is left to big corporations and financial institutions. How will you balance the interests of the business community and those who are desperately trying to find a path into the middle class?

Eric Garcetti: There’s no question that business is absolutely critical to our economic strength here, and by business it’s not necessarily just the large corporations – we’re talking about the mom and pop store, we’re talking about that medium-sized business that might do post-production for entertainment or a technology startup, someone who’s in manufacturing or international trade. So being strong on business is critically important for our mayor. But I think it can be done in a way that doesn’t have to race to the bottom in terms of wages for our employees and I think you can focus on this in two or three ways. One, by looking at what are the growth industries that will provide middle class jobs that don’t always require a high level of education: manufacturing, solar panel installation, green jobs, some of the areas where people can come maybe with just a high school degree or a vocational certificate and get into those jobs. Secondly, you have to make sure that we aren’t just attracting lower and lower wage industries here. So we look at making sure we attract strategic industries, and we also have a conscience in our local policies, and where there are very low-wage industries that are still critical [and] can’t be outsourced, look at having a decent standard, with things like a living wage and other proposals.

FPN: What can a mayor do to influence a regional economy and what would you bring to that?

EG: A mayor can create the conditions for economic prosperity to come. Sometimes it’s building a park, turning around a neighborhood, like up in Silver Lake where we used to have an empty, dirty triangle park and a broken fountain with a couple of homeless people sleeping in it. We went in there and jumped into action to get those homeless people into shelter and then into housing, to fix that fountain, to plant new grass, to bring a farmers market to a lower-income area, and suddenly everything around it began to blossom, there were small businesses that came in, restaurants and stores and other things. So a mayor or councilmember can play that role of catalyzing economic activity.

I really want to be a mayor that looks at the regional economy in terms of the other 87 cities that are out there and inviting the mayors of other cities to be part of planning this together. For instance, I want to open up Getty House, the mayor’s residence, two or three times a year to all 88 mayors of the county. We’ve got to get past Glendale bragging that they stole business from L.A., or L.A. bragging that we took one from Culver City. To someone looking for a job in L.A., we haven’t netted one new job. But if we are talking about being competitive with our aerospace or entertainment industry against other regions, that’s what a mayor can do.

FPN: The vast majority of public employees – librarians, garbage collectors and others – make relatively modest salaries and have relatively modest retirement benefits. What will you do as mayor to make sure that these workers are able to have a decent salary and retirement and don’t see further cuts?

EG: It’s very important to me that we uplift our public employees. We have incredibly hard-working people who live in our community, who are our relatives, our neighbors, who provide extraordinary services when the lights go out, when the sewers spill. Some of the dirtiest, some of the toughest work in the city is done by city employees that I have tremendous respect for. I’ve seen how committed they are, and especially those who are at the lower end of the spectrum, who don’t have Social Security – a lot of people don’t realize we don’t pay Social Security for folks – who have made immense sacrifices to get us through this recession. They’ve actually increased what they’ve paid out of their own pockets for their pensions, their health care.

So I think if we ever have to go back to the workers, and we have to keep that door open…but I think it’s fair to ask people at the top to sacrifice more. For example, as we are looking at health care costs, which have tripled in the last decade in our city, I think we’ll all be paying a little bit out of pocket for some of our premiums. But maybe for the lower-income employees of the city — they won’t have to pay more, because those are the ones struggling just to get by now who have lost homes, who have faced the same crisis as people in the private sector. So I think we always have to make change with some sense of justice, some sense of accountability.

FPN: City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana has come under criticism for what some construe as his targeting of workers. What is your assessment of Mr. Santana’s job performance and would you keep him on if you become mayor?

EG: To be the City Administrative Officer in the midst of the worst economic recession we’ve faced in my lifetime is a tough, tough job, and Miguel Santana has done some very powerful things to help balance our budget in conjunction with the City Council and the Mayor. On the other hand, [regarding] Mr. Santana or any of my general managers, I’ve said that I would want them all to reapply for their jobs, and I’m going to work with the community to figure out the criteria for business, labor, community members for who we want to collectively hire, and ultimately I’ll make that decision.

Look, the CAO has to negotiate with labor unions, so you want someone tough there, and I think it’s appropriate to have someone who has to be on the side of the table with management, with labor on that side. But I want a fair process, I want to make sure that collective bargaining is respected, I want to make sure it’s an engaging person who can keep the conversation going no matter how bad things get, because while I’m very hopeful we’re headed for better times, there may be a year or two of some further cuts, and I want someone effective and trusted at that table. That absolutely could be Mr. Santana and it could be somebody else.

FPN: What is your position on privatizing the operation of the Convention Center and, in general, on privatizing city services?

EG: I don’t close the door completely to privatization, especially for those who are paying a living wage, good benefits. But if it’s about cutting wages, cutting benefits and often taking a profit off the top, that usually is something that doesn’t make fiscal sense for the city. In fact what I proposed with the privatization of the Convention Center is that city employees could compete for those contracts, just as San Diego recently did. Public employees have competed against the private sector on four different contracts in San Diego and they won every time. In other words, an impartial jury of folks who were just assessing the bid could see that public workers could usually do things for less money because they don’t have to create profit, and secondly the commitment that they have and the expertise comes much cheaper than in the private sector. A lot of people think privatization means that things are going to be cheaper; it isn’t always the case, so I think as long as we preserve the ability for public employees to compete, competition isn’t a bad thing. Let’s make sure we have good standards — whether it’s public or private, and I think more often than not public employees will win.

FPN: Will you as mayor continue to support the Clean Truck Program at L.A.’s port in the face of what is very persistent opposition from the trucking industry, and will you appoint commissioners to the Harbor Commission who support the Clean Truck Program?

EG: Absolutely, having clean trucks at the harbor and, also, the opportunity for us to get more on-dock rail are two ways for us to clean up the community and at the same time make sure we can have a vibrant port. We’ve already seen huge reductions in the air pollution, at the same time we’ve seen our cargo go up at the port. So again I think we have destroyed that myth that you can either be for the environment or for jobs. We need to do both.

I am very interested in working with the trucking industry to make sure we have clean trucks, that we create an infrastructure for zero emissions or for natural gas trucks right there on site for some of the shorter trips, and long term that we empower those truck drivers to make sure they too can have a living wage [and] can support their families, as we reduce pollution.

FPN: Most of the port truck drivers are misclassified as independent contractors. What will you do as mayor to support those workers who are exploited and denied most of the basic rights that most of us enjoy?

EG: We see this in so many different industries where people who work as contractors or employers don’t have to give benefits to employees who are essentially full-time employees. I believe that if you are working for a company full time and providing a service, that they should be there to provide the same benefits as any of their employees. So I will work as mayor to make sure people have a decent wage, decent benefits — and that they have decent rights that are protected. That’s the kind of three-legged stool for economic prosperity in my mind.

Frying Pan News Exclusive: Interview with Eric Garcetti from LAANE on Vimeo.

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