Garcetti's Awkward Moment Anticipates an Awkward Mayoralty

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MAILANDER’S LA - My reaction was visceral; and I know the reaction of those in the room was visceral too. I know I wasn't the only one thinking "What a stupid little punk!" as our princely, knee-pantsed Mayor Eric Garcetti asked grown City department heads to re-apply for their jobs Monday. 

That would include asking a man who's been in government even longer than Garcetti, Jon Kirk Mukri, who has had to cajole every Councilman in LA for funding for the one thing LA does halfway right.  And it would include one head whom Mayors Bradley, Riordan, Hahn and Villaraigosa have all found capable of performing her job. And it would include a City Librarian John Szabo, who's gotten nothing but high marks in servicing the city's youth, especially given his staffing budget.  And...

 

Just put yourself in the department heads' well-worn, utterly devoted, famously-hard-to-fill civil servant shoes for a minute. They work 15 hour days, answer to everyone with a tongue, and face flack from whole organizations that are devoted to objecting to their every third major decision.  What else do you mutter to yourself when the new kid comes around with all his fawning media in tow and makes a big production of the fact that on top of all this you also need to reapply for your own damn job?

Here's what they were thinking: Didn't I know this kid when he was asking me for favors? Has he ever stopped asking me for favors?

It reminded me--and I'm sure many of those who were in the room--of the kind of media stunt Carmen Trutanich might have tried to pull, necessarily at the expense of a lot of others.  It reminded me of the kind of stunt that was, in fact, pulled many times by megalomanic evangelical huckster Dr. Gene Scott in the 1980's, whenever he thought his staff wasn't devoted enough to him.

Day eight, day nine, day ten of the new mayoralty passes....The problem with a stunt like Monday's alert-the-media, I'm-getting-tough-now, it's not actually being a Mayor, it's just acting like one. It's walking onto a set with people you've known for years and suddenly using all this great talent as your own self-serving props. An actual Mayor would have simply taken the department heads he wanted to fire--whom he already has known, in most cases for years--aside, and gotten rid of them quietly, and not made a big show of it. Garcetti instead decided to Nuch it up, alerting the media, pandering to the cameras, continuing the campaign, and not doing any real city business.

From the kid swearing him in (kid as prop), to the bus he takes to work (commuting as prop), to the faux chopping block (employees as props), thus far Garcetti has not show that he's real Mayor yet, far from it; thus far, he's all symbol, no event.  He's using too many people as props, even the very people he will need to depend on later to deliver for him if he hopes to do whatever he thinks he wants to do--which is not apparent yet.

Garcetti's awkward moment with the department heads might have grabbed some favorable short-term headlines.  But when the Mayor does in fact try to do something real...like, say, go to Council to block DWP pay raises...and finds that not only does he not have the votes there, but that insulted department heads aren't especially pulling for him as enthusiastically as they could have either, it may make Garcetti's own re-applying process--for Mayor in 2017--all the thornier.

If you're not keeping score--and I sure wouldn't blame you if you weren't--Garcetti has thus far filled his own top staff with eleven City Hall insiders--eleven out of eleven appointments he's made have previous City Hall experience, and lots of it.  But when it comes to department heads--the very people who worked hardest to hold the City together during the Villaraigosa shambles--that's where he's trying to show the public he's a reformer.

The charade was especially vapid because nobody can seem to recall Garcetti ever calling for the removal of any department head when he was Council President. Additionally, Garcetti actually knows these people already better than Mayor Villaraigosa did--he met with them and saw them in Council far more often than our famously inaccessible previous Mayor.  Why is he subjecting them to such humiliation? You already know why--because it makes him look more like The Boss.  I guess he needs to look more like that.  But you don't look like that when you're presiding over a meeting at which three dozen or so of the City's top executives are asked to introduce themselves by name and talk a little about what to do, and that's that.

I suppose also it scores points with some disconnected bluehairs to stage Civil War re-enactments too.  But Garcetti's own personnel appointments have not exactly been above reproach.  For instance, Becca Doten was only barely a rookie reserve cop when Garcetti suddenly named her to the City's Office of Homeland Security and Public Safety as its Crisis Management director, where she will organize volunteer response to emergencies.  She completed Reserve Officer III training four months ago.  That doesn't seem like a lot of time seasoning for such a position; in fact, it seems like someone went from good volunteer prospect to professional director tout de suite.

In theory, you would think that this is a non-political kind of office, especially suited to someone who has made a career of crimefighting, or trauma response, or as a first responder.  I don't remember much about Doten as a crimefighter, as a supervisor of trauma centers or medical personnel, or as a first responder, but I do remember much about her as a Young Democrat and as a fervently loyal Democratic operative--a longtime figure in such circles since college, she was even named a delegate to the 2008 convention, and most recently actively supported Councilman Gil Cedillo in his campaign for Ed Reyes's former Council seat.

Nothing in Doten's HuffPo-plus-Alarcon-aide c.v. anticipates such a posting, one potentially so important to our city's public safety.  No, this looks much more like a spoils system appointment, one of those in which everyone will hold their breath for a year or so, hoping for the best.

This appointment was additionally odd because it came before the appointment of a Deputy Mayor to the Office--typically a US Attorney type (which Doten obviously isn't either).  Garcetti in short appointed the subordinate before he appoints the superior.  That's not a recipe for success in most business practice; most would rather give the superior the ability to appoint her own subordinate or at least to suggest one.  This fact makes this appointment even more meretricious than it already appears on the surface.

While Garcetti was engaged in all the high stakes personnel kabuki Monday, his media people were busy selling the story to the papers.  That may have made them temporarily too busy to respond to inquiries about who may have funded a recent trip to Egypt that Doten took in the waning days of Council service, although they have confirmed that it was "a personal trip."  The trip may have been pleasure or may have been devoted mostly to boosting some far-flung credentials for the coming appointment to the City's Homeland Security and Public Safety Office.  If Becca paid for it herself, good for her; lots of Council aides split town and even country in a big way in the waning days of the Villaraigosa era.

Meanwhile, as newbie Mayor Garcetti reviews the homework assignment hand-ins from the already overtaxed GMs, the City's most devoted civil servants as their reward get to ponder how many of their number he'll cut.  Certainly it can't be more than five--that could mess up the operations of the City too much too soon.  No, this whole saber-rattling exercise was about as pointless as it gets.

But most predictably of all, what you are seeing from local media instead of sensible inquiry and critique is trained-seal applause. Garcetti inspired a lot of media, raising expectations that the chainsaw was coming soon.  

As we have found time and time again, however, these kinds of positions are very hard to fill, and the expectation is not only that Garcetti release many, but he find people who are better.  Which has been a very dicey proposition for the City of Los Angeles in its most recent department head hires--and doesn't figure to become easier anytime soon.  

I mean, who wants to come to work for a city that's going to make you re-apply for your job anyway, even after you've secured it?

 

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)   

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 56

Pub: July 12, 2013

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