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Sunday, Apr 2, 2023

Greuel Takes Control In New Post at City Hall

Wendy Greuel is proud to be called the City’s Pothole Queen for her meticulous attention to those seemingly small details such as fixing sidewalks, installing left hand turn signals and filling potholes, which as a Councilmember, she understood to be important in improving people’s lives. Now, as the new City Controller, sworn in July 1, Greuel is hoping to be known as a fierce fiscal watchdog for the City of Los Angeles. Intent on keeping the office of City Controller as independent as it was under her predecessor Laura Chick, she’s pledged to root out waste, fraud and abuse in city government, and to ensure that every taxpayer dollar is spent responsibly and effectively. The Controller’s job, which Chick herself has described as the loneliest job in City Hall pointing to the fact that no one likes to be audited, seems an odd fit for Greuel, who has been a very visible, accessible, and collegial public figure in her District and in the Valley as a whole, since elected to the City Council in 2002. However, Greuel is looking forward to the challenge of “being an agent of change” through this new role, and will hold true to her belief that you’re not an effective elected official unless you get out there and talk to the people. Question: What can Angelenos expect from you as City Controller? Answer: They’re going to see a fiercely independent City Controller, a person who is going to take on the tough issues; deal with the financial crisis we have today; come in with recommendations on how we can be more efficient. I think they’re also going to see someone who is not going to just blame, we’re going to come up with solutions and insure that those solutions are actually implemented. We’re going to have a report card that talks about the recommendations, timelines, who’s responsible, who’s to be held accountable and have that on the website. I’m going to go through all the audits that have already been done, some that were done in the last year and figure out exactly where they are in the various departments, whether or not the council or mayor have taken action. The audits that will come out will be a little bit different, not only a cover letter like Laura Chick did, but also include an action item list so that anyone can pick up that audit and see exactly what kind of recommendations there were, what the timelines are, who’s accomplished what, and who hasn’t. Q: What will be your first order of business? A: I’m looking at, in the next 90 days, a number of audits; one issue is surplus property. In the city of Los Angeles, the current policy (although it has been waived the last two years it’s still in the books, I’ve tried to get it taken away forever), is that if a piece of surplus property is sold in your district, you get 50 percent of the proceeds to use in your district. That makes no sense; it should go into the general fund. So my first study/ audit will be to look at the last ten years, what properties have been sold, how much they’ve been sold for, and where the money has gone. Because there are some districts that never have surplus property and they don’t see the benefits. What an audit can do is put out the facts and the facts speak for themselves, and I think the surplus audit will do that. Q: Is there anything you plan to do right away to help the city through this budget crunch? A: I’m going to embark on a financial analysis of the city to see where we’re going, and also to look at the issues of pension reform, which are critical to the city. And take a look at our costs and expenditures. We’re facing this year close to a $500 million budget deficit, the same for next fiscal year. We have to get our financial house in order. Let’s get back to the basics. It’s looking at where our revenues are as well as what our expenditures are, and overall looking at what’s the city going to look like four years from now, ten years from now. Q: Will you take a look at how the recent and aggressive expansion of parking meters and fees has affected business districts in the city? A: Unfortunately, for 18 years in many parts of the city they never raised the rates, ever. Instead of incrementally raising rates for people to adjust to it, there came this huge amount last year, and it unfortunately was a perfect storm, at the same time we have the worst economic crisis that we’ve probably seen in my lifetime. So the double whammy for some businesses was problematic. My concern is twofold. One is to look at those areas that have been heavily impacted and see what the cause of that is, and two, to also see how we’re doing in our collections. I want to see how we’re monitoring our collections. We have a contract for people to collect, and we’ve heard recently that they’re not collecting the money fast enough because there are more quarters going in and they haven’t adjusted to the fact that they need to go more frequently. So looking at the contracts, looking at the collections, looking at how we go about putting in new meters and looking at the whole parking study is something I’ve been interested in. Q: You are known throughout your District and the Valley as a whole, especially in the business community, as being an office holder who is very accessible and very visible. You appear to be very good at constituent contact. The controller job seems to be far more removed from the people and in that sense the job seems like an odd fit for you. How will this adjustment be for you? A: I have always been, no matter what job I’ve had, a very participatory individual. Someone said to my husband a year or so ago when I was running for Controller: ‘When she becomes Controller won’t your life be easier, you won’t have so many events to go to, you won’t have to be at so many places, it’s going to be a different life,’ and his response to them was: ‘Have you met my wife?’ I think if you isolate yourself in this corner office and you don’t get out and talk to the people you’re not going to be a very effective controller. I wouldn’t have been a very effective City Council Member. It is the people who often times have the best ideas the same kind of constituent interaction I think is important as the Controller. It might not be at the exact same level, it’s not going to be the pothole in the neighborhood kind of thing, but it is going to be that when I’m walking in my neighborhood, when I see a consistent problem that is structural, [I’ll think], ‘maybe I should audit?’ And look at that issue. We’re going to meet regularly with the neighborhood council leadership and talk with them about how the system is working. Q. Are you prepared to go from being well liked to perhaps even hated by other city officials in your role as Controller? A: These audits speak for themselves. I always think an audit becomes an issue when a department head responds negatively. It’s all about response and it’s what I talked to the mayor about a week ago. I said, ‘our relationship will change’. This is a very different position in which to be in. I said ‘there are things you’re not going to like.’ I’m going to do my job; those audits stand on their own. If you’re an elected official or a general manager and you have an audit that says, here’s how things could be better, you should embrace it. I’m going to be independent. I have my own ideas about things I want to see changed, and we will work together where possible and disagree where that may happen, but the bottom line is I am responsible to the citizens of Los Angeles who want me to make sure our taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively and wisely. And I think that’s what everyone’s perspective should be. Q: As a Councilmember you have been perceived as conciliatory and also as being very supportive of the Mayor. How do you want to be perceived in this new role? A: I want to be perceived as someone who gets things done and if that means taking on your friends then that means taking on your friends, but if it means working together to actually accomplish something then I’ll work together with them. I think that my reputation as a councilmember has been: I have an issue, I have an idea, I introduce it, I dog it, I make sure it gets passed, I make sure it gets implemented and I check to make sure it’s still working. That’s the same kind of person I’m going to be as the City Controller. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. I’ve been a councilmember and I’ve been conciliatory and tried to bring a consensus but when I’ve had to take someone on, I will do that. But people put you in a box; you can only be nasty or can only be conciliatory. I am going to say, “what allows me to get things done?’ If I can work with someone to get this audit implemented, great! If they fight me every step of the way, then I will use every tool in my toolbox to fight them and to get what I think is right. Q: What will you absolutely NOT do that Laura Chick did? A: There’s one kind-off overall thing. [With Chick] there was a feeling sometimes of ‘I did my audit, I’ve given it to you in the Council, it’s your job now to implement it’. I’m going to be an incredible nudge and hold them accountable, and remind them and push. It goes back to my point earlier which is I want to say I’ve gotten things done. At the end of the year I won’t say I did 12 audits and these were my recommendations. I want to say I did 12 audits, these are my recommendations AND they were implemented, embraced, we did things differently and we saved X amount of dollars. That’s what I want to be able to say every year. Oftentimes she [Chick] believed that once you did the audit, she did her job. Q. What will you do that Laura Chick did not? A: One of the things I want to do when an audit comes out, instead of just a press conference, is I’m going to have a hearing with people that are impacted, stakeholders that will be able to get briefed on it, there will be questions back and forth. Because otherwise, right now what happens is an audit is released, it goes to the City Council, it goes to the Audits and Government Efficiency Committee, it’s heard on a Wednesday at two o’ clock, and people don’t necessarily know what happened with that audit, or what was accomplished. We want to be very embracing of people being part of the process.

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