B&G Interview: Questions for Laura Chick

A conversation with the controller for the city of Los Angeles
April 1, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

When Laura Chick ran for re-election as controller of Los Angeles a couple of years ago, she didn't run as much as saunter. Without any campaigning, she won with some 82 percent of the vote. As controller, Chick is the chief auditor, accountant and watchdog for the city. She's unafraid of making enemies, speaks her mind with passion and wit and, through more than 110 separate audits, has been a champion of good government in a city where that can be a decidedly uphill battle.

Among her accomplishments: exposing contracting improprieties at the airport and harbor; uncovering millions in over-billing by Fleishman-Hillard Public Relations; and addressing hazing and harassment at the much beloved Los Angeles Fire Department.

In a recent conversation, Chick combined great optimism -- largely thanks to a good partnership she has with the city's current mayor -- with a healthy skepticism born of experience.

Here are some choice excerpts.

Have you found common themes across the board in departments and programs in Los Angeles?

No written rules, policies or procedures. No vision. No goals or objectives. No strategic plan. No accountability. No performance measures. Silos within silos. Disconnected jobs. Lack of integration. Lack of integration between elements of the same program all trying to accomplish a common goal. Turf wars. Turf mentality. No one in charge. Insular. We promoted from within. We're a strong union city. The tradition was that you promoted from within, so how do you get great ideas?

So what needs to be done about human resources in L.A.?

We need to reinvent our human resources department. I can't tell you how we're choking on the current civil service system. We've never redone it. We just keep adding to it and tinkering with it. I picture this giant Lego/Erector Set/Tinker Toys structure.

Earlier in your career, you were a mental health professional and a social worker. What did you learn from that experience that's helped you with this job?

I would say that being trained and having professional experience as a problem solver has been the most important.

Are a lot of people in government not problem solvers?

I often say that the public thinks their elected leaders are hard at work trying to solve the problems of society today, and they're mistaken.

What are your public leaders doing instead?

They're often slapping Band-Aid answers on the solutions. And trying to work toward their own self-aggrandizement for their careers. Delivering sound-bite solutions toward serious problems.

Why do you think that's true?

Here in California we're notorious for term limits. It's hard to have mid- or long-range thinking and looking into the future and putting solutions into place when everybody is jumping around looking for their next job.

Also, from the baby boomers on, they've also been known as the "me generation." Instant gratification. The credit-card gang. You want to get it now, worry about it later. The elected leadership represents and comes from the public. We're as good or bad as they are. Part of this involves mortgaging off future generations to solve our problems now. Don't put the time and effort and political will into solving the problems. That's what society is about. The voters want to have their potholes filled yesterday and they don't want to hear about what we have to do to stop their kids tomorrow from joining gangs.

Anything else?

Our particular brand of dysfunctional politics has been a problem. If you don't have strong mayoral leadership, you've got a fractured, visionless city. You've got 15 council members focused on delivering to their constituents. So, who is pushing the good government initiatives if not a strong mayor? Since 1999, as a result of charter reform because we're a chartered city, we've had a strengthened mayor. And now, in 2007 an even stronger mayor by virtue of Mayor [Antonio] Villaraigosa's style and abilities and personality.

What's your goal for the city?

My goal, side by side with the mayor, is to make Los Angeles the best managed large city in the country.

Are you using performance measures to know how much the city has accomplished?

One of the first things I did as controller was to go to the then-mayor [James Hahn] and say, "Mr. Mayor, what about standing up and saying that you are going to have Los Angeles measure its performance? Pick four things you know you'll be able to deliver on and four things you know the citizens care about."

Now, it's almost six years later. This mayor has been working very hard with his team on laying the groundwork, and I can safely and confidently say, we'll be a city that is effectively measuring its performance. I am tired -- to put it mildly and with great restraint -- of coming out with performance audits that say, "I can't tell you how this department, program or agency is performing." Why? Because they're not collecting the right data, and I can't measure their performance.

Why hasn't Los Angeles done more to learn from other cities?

In many ways, L.A. has considered itself unique and incomparable. Other than an outside consultant being hired here and there whose studies always wound up on the shelf, I'm the first person really yelling "benchmark."

If you could give one piece of advice to Governor Schwarzenegger, what would it be?

One would be to keep on building a bipartisan teamwork coalition, because that is the only and the best way to get things done. And I applaud and cheer him on with that. And then I would say what I say to myself all the time: Keep spreading the net wider and deeper in how we listen and hear what the people are saying.

Your audits don't seem to mince words. Are a lot of people angry with you at any particular moment in time?

I have people who despise me, loathe me, hate me. And if I dwell on it, it's very painful. But it's not in my job description to fret about it. I don't win popularity contests in city hall. But the public is telling me they're happy with how I'm doing my job. I think I'm doing what the public is paying me well to do. And I feel good about what I'm doing, frankly. And I'm the final judge for myself. We have so many good people who work for the city on the front line and in mid and top management. And many of them also believe in what I'm trying to do. They care about this city.