For days before Thanksgiving, 2009, Santa Ana winds had been blowing up ash and dust from the massive Station Fire that recently burned north of Los Angeles. The scorching, high-pressure weather system seemed a suitable climate for L.A.’s financial meltdown as the city entered the third year of America’s recessionary slump. Inside City Hall on that Wednesday before the holiday, government representatives and members of the news media listened to the testimony of a man who was on his way to becoming one of Los Angeles’ most powerful figures. He was only 40, held no elective office and had started his job as the City Administrative Officer just three months before.
Yet on this Thanksgiving eve Miguel Santana held the rapt attention of the City Council and journalists as he delivered shocking news: Los Angeles faced an imminent shortfall of $98 million and, based on his projections, the city could be burdened by a $1 billion debt by 2013.