L.A. Mayor's Early Obstacles: Budgets, Bureaucrats, Syrup

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TOUSLED but on time, Richard Riordan steps into a favorite breakfast hangout for Hollywood types wearing a bright silk tie painted with a happy-face sun and stick figures of kids.

The Republican millionaire businessman took office here July 1 after the first wide-open mayoral election in 20 years.

Glad-handing his way past customers to a back booth where a reporter waits, he sits down to a 40-minute test of his storied, problem-solving mind: how to distill his first 100 days in office and look articulate while eating a stack of syrup-doused pancakes.

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``I inherited a city that hadn't been managed properly in five to 10 years,'' says the man who promised to cut waste, bureaucracy, and nonsense at City Hall.

He continues, ``There was a vacuum filled with lobbyists and special interests used to getting their way. The city council took over niches here and there and was usurping control of various [mayoral] departments.''

The fight to retake lost ground has consumed the mayor's honeymoon.

Besides winning high marks for getting out into neighborhoods, Mr. Riordan has been touring city facilities, meeting with the general managers of city operations, and attempting to streamline departments from parks and recreation to garbage collection.

He has appointed five deputy mayors, reduced the budget for the mayor's office, and called for the phasing out of full-time paid commissioners of the Board of Public Works. He has appointed new commissioners and nearly a dozen task forces with search-and-destroy missions on waste.

``It's a pretty conservative bunch,'' says Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. ``His appointees hit all the right demographics, but you don't find a lot of diversity in their views, which is what he promised.''

One of Riordan's first actions in office has been to take a scythe to the city budget. He has just submitted plans to cut $51 million from the current budget, and more cuts are on the way. ``Between now and next July 1, we are going to have to cut $250 million more,'' he says of the city's discretionary spending allowance of about $4 billion.

Now Riordan must reconcile his budget-cutting fervor with his campaign pledges to make the city more business friendly and to put thousands more police officers on the street.

Riordan has not yet managed to reverse what he considers a bad business climate in Los Angeles, but he claims subtle progress: a change in attitude by bureaucrats, a task force on issuing permits, and a new city liaison for the film industry. ``Los Angeles has literally been the enemy of film companies in the past,'' Riordan says.

As for beefing up law enforcement, Riordan promised during a drawn-out and dirty campaign to put 3,000 more police on the streets in four years through such ideas as privatizing Los Angeles International Airport.

Since taking office, that plan has run into a couple of snags: Police Chief Willie Williams says the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is not equipped to train that many new officers, and federal laws may not permit the airport privatization Riordan had in mind. Riordan's alternative solution - to radically hike landing fees - has pushed him into a confrontation with major airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The mayor plays down such problems. ``We'd [still] like to get possession of the airport and get it better run so that if you make a deal to privatize, you'd make a much better deal,'' he says.

Of a similar idea to sell off the Department of Power and Water and use the $1 billion to $2 billion in proceeds to fund more police, Riordan says: ``First we want to get it running smoothly. Right now, it's not.''

In the meantime, Riordan says Chief Williams has promised a plan within weeks to triple police presence by juggling overtime, vacation, and compensatory time schedules. Will that meet his campaign pledge of 3,000 more police in four years? ``I still think that's doable,'' Riordan says.

Either way, the relationship between the city's political leaders and the police is far better than it was when Mayor Tom Bradley and Chief Daryl Gates were feuding.

``From our perspective, it has been nothing but a pleasure to have a mayor who is placing public safety as a top priority,'' says Commander Dave Gascon, chief spokesman for the LAPD. ``Riordan has given every indication by his manner and public statements that he is supportive.''

The new mayor sees an openness to change by the general public and by lawmakers across America. Riordan says he is at the forefront of that change.

To learn how to better handle budget cuts in areas from parks to libraries, for example, the mayor recently met with key organizers of the 1984 Olympics here.

``It takes a lot of professionalism, knowledge, and people to make it happen. We've got them all,'' he says. ``It's just a matter of putting them together.''

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