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Former Los Angeles Controller Says City Government Is Stacked Against the Office

Kenneth Mejia won with a progressive mandate, but Laura Chick says the controller’s office has been weakened by factors beyond its power.




Laura Chick at her home in Berkeley. Photo: Justin Katigbak | Survival Media Agency.

Though Laura Chick has lambasted Los Angeles’ new City Controller Kenneth Mejia as “unfit” and an “extremist,” Chick also tried to “audit the status quo” when she held Mejia’s job from 2001-2009. Chick served on the City Council from 1993 to 2001 before she became city controller, the “independent watchdog” charged with overseeing her former colleagues.

Chick clashed with the City Council’s culture of consensus. In an interview with Capital & Main, she elaborates on some of the unwritten rules that structure City Hall and fuel the corruption scandals of this autumn and other years. Chief among them is councilmembers’ power to approve or veto developments in their own district.

A new city charter in 2000 gave the city controller the power to audit departments, programs and even “performance,” and Chick eagerly stepped into the office, determined to establish a precedent for robust city oversight. She produced more than 170 audits in eight years, including an audit of the Los Angeles World Airports’ outside contracts that led to criminal investigations and an audit that revealed the Los Angeles Police Department had failed to process more than 7,000 rape kits. Her successors have not been nearly as prolific. 

But Chick says her efforts to hold Los Angeles accountable may have undermined her political career. Being an effective controller, it turned out, was incompatible with fundraising or running for future office. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Laura Chick: Did you worry that if you challenged political power as controller, the mayor or the council would cut your budget?

Capital & Main: That office really does need to be strengthened. I always knew the council and the mayor were going to vote on my budget. That was always a weak point in that office. But I built up a huge email list of Los Angelenos — of voters. I was constantly going out and talking to groups, neighborhood watch, chambers, homeowner groups, and everywhere I went I encouraged people to go on my email list, and I told them why. If the council and or the mayor tried to silence me, I will turn around and come to you for help. You, the public. I will ask you to be behind me as a backup. And to push with me. Don’t let them silence me. I am the voice that is pulling the curtain and showing you what’s behind.

“I never wanted to be a member of the club. I wanted to change how things were done with City Hall.”

Did you encounter retaliation for your audits?

They never messed with my budget. They didn’t dare. I also had a good relationship with the media. I was criticized for it. I was called a media hound. The whole point was to make sure they didn’t cut my budget. Quite the opposite. While I was controller I think I had a bigger budget than ever before. [Controller Rick] Tuttle supported charter reform, [and] so did I. It’s why I ran for city controller. The new charter gave the controller the explicit job of doing performance audits, which to me translated to [being able to] go and ask the question, how are we doing, and how can we do it better? 

[In San Francisco in the early 2000s,] a ballot measure passed that gave the auditor a specific percentage of the general fund. It made the auditor’s budget independent. That would be what I would recommend as a very needed reform. 

What happened after you left in 2009?

As I left City Hall, I had this visual image of a castle pulling up its drawbridge. They were closing in away from the public and away from the citizens they served, and all the good ol’ guys coming down from Sacramento and bringing Sacramento style deal cutting to council. Jose Huizar — are you kidding me? Everyone knew what was going on. You don’t play games like that and don’t have your colleagues kind of knowing what’s going on. But the name of the game is you don’t squeal on your pals.

When I was a city councilmember, I was called over by the council president and the head of the Planning [and Land Use Management] Committee, [and they said,] “Don’t you know you don’t say anything negative about your colleagues?” I never wanted to be a member of the club. I wanted to change how things were done with City Hall. 

I have to say that I declare myself a failure. I didn’t change anything. I walked out the door and everything went back to the way it was before.

In 2010, you discussed being controller with the L.A. Times, and told the paper, “There’s a lot of taboos, a lot of sacred cows, a lot of things that people don’t talk about. ” What are the sacred cows?

Well, one of them is that all real estate and planning issues belong to the councilperson of the district. That is a holy, holy sacred cow. But when you think about that — how insane that is? If it’s a really bad or weird project, and you kind of think something weird is going on, but you have to vote for it?

“My dream was to hand off the audits to a mayor who would take all the credit in the world. But I ended up with mayors who didn’t want to rock the boat.”

What were the other sacred cows?

Well another sacred cow, especially once [Los Angeles Police Department Chief William] Bratton was head of LAPD, was LAPD. You don’t mess with Bratton, you don’t mess with police. 

One I really would want to tell you about is when I had to audit something in the city attorney’s office. OK, here’s a sacred cow — you don’t ask questions about another elected official. I wanted to ask a question. I wanted to know, “How does the city attorney decide when to use outside counsel?” How do they decide which counsel? How does the city attorney monitor those contracts? I start to do the audit, the city attorney says, “You’re not coming in. You’re not allowed to look at another elected official’s office.” The City Council called me into chambers and sided with the city attorney because they were scared I was going to start auditing them. 

They called me into council and I’ll never forget. Huizar told me, “Stand down. Controller Chick, you need to stand down! Will you stand down?” I said no, I will not. 

That’s another sacred cow. You can’t look at public money that’s going to another elected official’s office. 

The controller needs the mayor. My dream was to hand off the audits to a mayor who would take all the credit in the world. But I ended up with mayors who didn’t want to rock the boat. 

The very first thing I asked was that the auditors write in language the public could understand. 

How many auditors did you have? There were 40 authorized auditors in 2010 and 22 authorized now in the current budget. 

One of the ways I did [more than 170 audits] was to hire outside auditing firms. I couldn’t afford to hire so, so, so many auditors, but I did have enough money for certain specific audits to hire outside teams. One of the things I did with the outside professionals was to work with my in-house auditors. I wanted a transfer of skills. It was clear to me that some of my team could benefit. When I left the office, I saw that the auditing division was shrinking. My successor controllers did not seem to have the budget needed. 

You got to try to define what the controller would be under the new charter of 2000?

It makes me very sad. I loved the office. I worked very hard. I was shaping the controller’s office to play a significant role. No one had ever paid attention to that office before. People started to pay attention. People used to ask me, aren’t you a Republican, Laura, if you care so much about how money is spent? That makes me crazy. The changes I made went out the window, they really did. Change always depends on the human beings that are there.

“To be really independent, you at least have to have the attitude that you don’t care about your political future.”

Can you give me a specific example?

I pushed very hard to open the books to the public about how money was being spent [in council offices]. I included some of the various perk money and some of the different pots of money that councilmembers get to spend on various things. I don’t mean their campaign money. I’ve lost track of all the different pots. There was money for billboards, and bus benches, and it was insane, it was a significant amount. I pushed to have the councilmembers post in ways easy to find on their websites how that money was being spent. After I left it was a dead subject. Everyone was left happy with their piles of gold in their offices to spend any way they wanted. Very often that money is used to make certain people happy, who are supporters. 

Did your audits impact your ability to run for office?

As my first term ended I made the decision that I wasn’t going to run for anything else. That was the only way I could do the job in a pure way. I said out loud that I was going after the sacred cows. I knew I annoyed people, I antagonized people, and I didn’t play the games you need to play to develop a funding base. When I ran for reelection as controller I did not have a campaign. I did not raise a single dollar. I didn’t have a campaign manager. To be really independent, you at least have to have the attitude that you don’t care about your political future. 

Would you have had trouble fundraising?

I would have. I definitely made enemies. There were people who didn’t like me who were big in the political circles, and there were politicians.

“People talk about how the cops close ranks to protect a bad apple. Politicians do that better and more.”

If you’re controller, and you want to run for mayor, who can you not afford to piss off?

It’s not so much those individual donors, it’s the lobbyists. It’s the players. The big lobbying firms, and some of them ran campaigns as well as represented business clients, and part of the game is they get paid by their clients for meeting with the mucky mucks. 

Your elected official is going to meet with Mr. So and So because the lobbyist is bringing him in. This is what really sticks in my mind, is that I was accused of being disloyal from the very beginning of my political career. People talk about how the cops close ranks to protect a bad apple. Politicians do that better and more. 

That world they move in, the lobbyists who make their money, and the big players who pay some of the developers. If you speak out about it, if you close your door to them, I’ve been accused of not remembering who my friends were. Well, they weren’t my friends. They were my political supporters and donors. They weren’t my friends. There were people on my finance committee when I ran it in ’93 who were later the subjects of some of my audits — then my name was mud with them and their circles. I took a look at the airport with the awarding of airport’s [contracts], and oops — I was accused of not remembering who my friends were. But I never felt retaliation. To me that means somebody does something that harms you. What they did was I would walk into a big event and certain people would move to the other side of the room. 

Who moved to the other side of the room at these events?

Lobbyists, high ranking city officials, especially certain management people, who if nothing else didn’t want me to notice them. The general managers who were my best friends when I was on the City Council because they knew I voted on their budget would run away when I was walking down the hall. Lobbyists and certain City Hall insiders who were connected with councilmembers. Or even [City Council] staff, chiefs of staff. It was predominantly a certain insider world that believed that a No. 1 virtue of a politician was loyalty to the club. And that you don’t say things out loud that would reflect badly about someone who would help you get elected. And they really believed that. You know who else called me disloyal was Richard Riordan, Mayor Riordan. We were having breakfast to supposedly patch up our relationship. He said you’re disloyal, disingenuous — I said, disloyal? I didn’t take a pledge of fealty to you. That’s definitely on the record. 

How would you characterize the status quo at City Hall?

There are 15 elected officials who are tugging on general managers to deliver resources to where they want them. It takes enormous leadership and courage to solve the very complex problems facing the city of Los Angeles. That’s what charter reform was all about. It was supposed to make a stronger mayor. But instead, Eric Garcetti, president of the City Council, orchestrated that ballot measure and fooled the public. It’s not that extending term limits was so bad, it’s the way he did it. It was a lie. And it left running the city basically to the council. The legislators who came down from Sacramento [to the City Council] were used to having lobbyists coming to them and presenting them legislation to support. Not the other way around. It was the lobbyists who wrote most of the bills. Down they came, happy to be prince of their fiefdom, with local media dying out and a controller’s office that went to sleep. 

There was no accountability because there was no [sense that the] buck stops with the mayor. That’s what charter reform was supposed to deliver to the people of L.A., a stronger mayor who was supposed to be the person where the buck stopped. And the transparency was supposed to come from the controller.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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