City Controller’s Race: Follow the Money

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In the 1976 docudrama film “All the President’s Men,” the catchphrase “follow the money” was popularized – and suggested that political corruption can be brought to light by examining money transfers between parties.

Although many Los Angeles residents feel that the mayor’s race is all-important because it receives the media coverage, CTN and Westside Current feel that Controller race is equally important elected position. The controller is in charge of the city’s money.

The L.A. City Controller is the auditor and chief accounting officer of the City.

The Controller prepares the official financial reports for the City and is responsible for financial and performance audits of all City Departments and programs.

Candidates who have qualified for the ballot for controller are: Paul Koretz (City Councilman); Kenneth Mejia (accountant and housing justice advocate); Carolan O’Gabhann (public school teacher); Rob Wilcox (City Attorney’s office spokesman); David Vahedi (attorney and chief financial officer); Stephanie Clements (CFO and Asst. Director of the Department of Public Works – Street Services); and Reid Lidow (former executive officer to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

CTN and Westside Current sent the same seven questions to all candidates last week.
Only two responded, Stephanie Clements, who is the assistant director of the Bureau of Street Services and David Vahedi, an attorney and financial officer.  The responses are listed below. Information about the other candidates follows.

DAVID VAHEDI

  1. Should the Controller be an accountant or have a background in finance? Why or why not? If you are not an accountant, why do you think you’ll be able to oversee the books?

The Controller must be someone with both auditing and accounting expertise. Los Angeles spends almost $10 billion a year. As we have seen over the last several years, corruption has reached deep into city hall. Most of the fraud was easily detectable by an experienced auditor. The DWP scandal has cost taxpayers over $100 million alone.

I would be the first Controller with an advanced degree in accounting. I have conducted over 350 civil and criminal audits. My audits have led to the prosecution of people that steal taxpayer money. I am also an attorney with 25 years of experience. This skill set will allow me to stop corruption at its inception along with rooting out wasteful spending before it occurs on day one.

  1. What was the most important audit that Controller Ron Galperin did for the city?

Controller Galperin has done many impactful audits. The most important would be his audits of Prop. HHH spending (homeless bond). Second, would be audits on city overtime costs. These two together account for billions in waste and mismanagement. As your Controller, I will never shy away from the tough audits. Equally important, I am going to fight tirelessly to see that my recommendations are implemented.

  1. Are there any programs you feel that should be audited or cut that Galperin did not address?

I would have liked Controller Galperin to audit the Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety to determine ways to streamline the entitlement program. We must bring down cost of construction in this city. Everyday wasted is one less home built and increased development costs. Worse, these delay result in the city losing $200 million a year in property tax revenue that it would be entitled to collect if building projects were completed sooner.

  1. Do you have any experience in the private sector and what was it?

I was in private practice for 10 years, meeting a payroll and running a business, before being drawn back into government service to be part of a team to decentralize a state tax agencies legal department.  For the last five years, I have been the Chief Financial Officer for a media buying company that went from zero revenue to over a $100 million a year in a very short period. I fully understand that people depend on me for their livelihoods to make proper financial decisions. I will bring this same level of diligence to the Controller’s office.

  1. Is there anything else you think people should know about you that would make you the best candidate?

I am fully independent from city hall and a true outsider. I refuse all special interest donations. I refuse to seek endorsements from any current elected city officials that I will be responsible for auditing.  As such, residents in Los Angeles will know that I am beholden only to them and not to special interests.

  1. What areas of the City budget would you focus on to make spending effective?

There is no single answer. Los Angeles wastes money throughout the entire city operations. For example, we spend $200 million a decade on replacing trash cans. This can be reduced tremendously by simply adding more recycled rubber to the design. We could then take this savings and use it to fix our sidewalks. This would make LA more walkable and save up to $30 million a year in slip-and-fall payouts. In turn, litigation savings could go somewhere else to improve quality of life for the residents. I want to root out all waste.

  1. What strategies would you employ to ensure wasteful spending doesn’t take place?

I will use my 30 years of auditing experience and legal experience to create an audit program that will maximize my office’s ability to root out wasteful spending. I will engage both city workers and residents to help me in my mission. I will also audit much more closely the city expenditures for “no bid” contracts. While these may be smaller contracts that have forgone scrutiny, collectively they total well over a $100 million a year.

Background:

  • Loyola Marymount Law School
  • Member, State Board of Equalization criminal investigation team
  • Administrative Law Judge, State Board of Equalization
  • Currently, CFO of a media buying company

Key Platform Issues:

  • Purchase better trash cans for Department of Sanitation so replacement cans are more cost efficient
  • Enroll the City in a CRV program to make money on redeemable items like cans and bottles
  • Change timing on water bonds
  • Detect and deter corruption in city agencies and amongst office holders
  • Will audit public housing and supportive housing costs
  • Track homeless placement and housing efforts

Funding:

  • Contributions $ 195,269.10
  • Matching Funds: $ 207,198.00
  • Expenditures: $ 160,287.68

Endorsements: Refuses endorsements from currently serving City officials. See website for comprehensive list of community leaders and business owners. Website: www.vahediforcontroller.com

STEPHANIE CLEMENTS

  1. Should the controller be an accountant or have a background in finance? Why or why not? If you are not an accountant, why do you think you’ll be able to oversee the books?

Ideally, yes, the controller should have an accounting and/or finance background, but Mr. Galperin has done a commendable job as Controller without an accounting degree, so it’s not essential. The job of the Controller entails much more than accounting. In fact, being a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) only qualifies one for an entry-level job in the city and does not guarantee success.

I have 25+ years of direct City accounting and financial experience including serving as Chief Financial Officer over two city agencies. I’m a public finance expert having performed and managed city accounting-related functions for years, in addition to managing city budgets, participating in audits, improving fiscal transparency, streamlining operations, and overseeing various financial functions. No other Controller candidate comes close to having the direct city accounting and financial experience that I have. This is important because the city is a large, complicated bureaucracy that can take years to figure out.

  1. What was the most important audit that Controller Ron Galperin did for the City?

It’s hard to pick just one as there have been many important audits relating to street sweeping, tree trimming, sidewalk repairs, IT deficiencies, and our antiquated 311 (customer request) system, to name a few.

But because homelessness is the #1 crisis among many crises, the most important Galperin audits relate to Proposition HHH. His audits highlighted key Prop HHH problems such as:

a. only 14% of the projects have been completed even though Prop HHH was approved in 2016 (1142 units completed compared to an est. 40k homeless Angelenos who need housing)

b. project costs are steadily increasing – on average about $600k per unit, with one project estimated to cost $837k per unit

c. developers have to cobble together up to 10 funding sources to get a project greenlighted. This complicated funding structure leads to significant delays and added costs

d. the city approval/permit/entitlement process is too lengthy, it involves many different city departments working in silos and must be streamlined to expedite construction

3. Are there any programs you feel that should be audited or cut that Galperin didn’t address?

Unfortunately, the Controller’s Office has limited auditing resources and therefore Galperin wasn’t able to effectively and repeatedly address and audit ALL city operations.

There is a real and concerning uptick in City government corruption, quid pro quo relationships, sole source/no bid contracts, and questionably unethical behavior (such as the secretive Mayor’s Fund where city contractors have been solicited by city employees to contribute to this fund).

Therefore, I would perform an anti-corruption risk assessment audit to identify risks, employ data analytics, improve transparency, and tighten up internal controls, to help regain the public trust and clean up this city, figuratively! Through this audit, I also want to highlight through data and better connect the dots between campaign contribution data and politicians, and related Council actions. As an example, there is an ongoing quid pro quo relationship between most LA politicians and government unions, who fund their campaigns to win votes and get elected.  We must continue to enhance campaign contribution transparency to fight against the corrupting influence of money in politics.

As Controller, I will also initiate a trash management audit, including our failing recycling system. It’s embarrassing that a world class city like Los Angeles is filled with trash in our public spaces. There is no citywide trash asset management system or strategy, technology is underutilized, and there are too many ‘cooks in the kitchen’ when it comes to trash management. I would audit trash/recycling to identify opportunities to implement a data-driven trash management system to help efficiently and equitably clean up this city, literally!

As Controller, I also plan to audit and monitor progress of LA’s Green New Deal – a plan that includes aggressive short and long-term goals to tackle our climate crisis. Unfortunately, we may be already falling short of our short-term goals and no one is really tracking this to keep agencies and elected officials accountable. As an example, the Green New Deal included a goal of planting 90,000 trees in 2021, but the city didn’t even come close to meeting that goal.

  1. Do you have any experience in the private sector and what was it?

Yes, I worked in retail and in restaurants as a teenager and throughout college. However, since college, I knew I wanted to work for the City of Los Angeles serving my community. That said, I recognize that the LA government must do a better job learning from and partnering with the private sector and implementing private sector best practices.

  1. Is there anything else you think people should know about you that would make you the best candidate?

I’ve worked for the City for 25+ years – I’m a public finance and all-around City administration expert having worked in six different City Departments in a variety of capacities at various levels of the organization – from entry level to executive positions. I know how the sausage is made and the sausage needs a new recipe!

My experience is critical because LA government is an incredibly large and complicated bureaucracy; It takes years for an outsider to figure out what the core problems are and we don’t have time for an inexperienced Controller. We need someone like me who can hit the ground running day one.

I’m also a 3rd-generation Angeleno and a mom of two young adults who are fourth generation LAUSD graduates. As a city executive, I value family-friendly work cultures and alternative schedules, such as 4-day work weeks and continued telecommuting, when appropriate.

I’m not a career politician, I have a great city job already. But I’m incredibly frustrated with how this city is being mismanaged and I want to use my knowledge, experience and know-how to help steer this city in a better direction. And I’m willing to stand up to our status quo politicians and special interests who have contributed to the deterioration of Los Angeles.

  1. What areas of the City budget would you focus on to make spending more effective?

After 25+ years of working for the City, I can tell you definitively that the biggest problem facing the City’s budget is fiscal mismanagement mostly due to the ongoing quid pro quo relationship between our politicians and the government unions (special interests) who fund their campaigns to get votes and win elections. These government unions represent about 45k City employees, most of whom don’t even live in Los Angeles, and not the four million Angelenos who pay taxes. As a result, these special interests have immense control over our politicians, who keep approving increase after increase to government salaries, bonuses, benefits and pensions, while city services/programs keep getting cut to free up funding to pay for higher compensation packages.

Over many years, I’ve experienced this never-ending pattern of higher compensation costs that leads to “crowd out’ of city services, as these unsustainable salary and pension costs require our City leaders to cut city services and programs to free up funding to pay for these raises.

So even though our city budget has grown from $4.3 billion to $11.5 billion over the last 20 years, we actually don’t have any more city employees working today: but government compensation has exploded. LA has a declining number of options to address these government raises short of raising taxes or reducing services. And that’s exactly what has happened.  After working with the city budget for many years, there’s never enough funding to go around for services, but there seemingly is always enough money for increases to government worker salary raises, benefits, bonuses and pensions. And that’s one of the main reasons why the city has deteriorated.

The grim reality in which Angelenos find themselves due to this ongoing fiscal mismanagement point to a lack of essential and equitable services, broken sidewalks and neglected streets, a trash and homeless crisis, lack of public restrooms; the deplorable amount of trash on our freeways and public areas, lack of public restrooms and world class amenities,

  1. What strategies would you employ to ensure wasteful spending doesn’t take place?

Many politicians declare they will cut wasteful projects and reduce red tape when elected. But those are empty meaningless words because they don’t really understand the underlying reasons why there is waste to begin with. But I do. I already understand first-hand the core reasons why we waste precious taxpayer dollars, and it is mostly due to:

a) Serious Technology Deficiencies Our city officials do not adequately invest in technology to modernize City services. We are grossly behind the times and the city must invest more in technology to make us more efficient, effective and importantly, equitable to improve City services and customer service.

b) Restrictive Civil Service (Hiring) Processes The way the city hires, fires and disciplines its workers is based on an antiquated civil service system, a system that was developed last century but is now obsolete. Civil service rules and regulations handcuff the city from expeditiously hiring the best and brightest from our local communities. The city can’t seem to hire up staff and too much staff time is wasted on civil service regulations. The entire civil service system needs to be blown up and reimagined.

c) Laborious/Cumbersome Contracting Regulations Our contracting processes are incredibly bureaucratic and complicated which restricts newer contractors and small businesses from taking advantage of contracting opportunities. We make it difficult to bid on projects and sole source/no bid contracts have proliferated because the traditional competitive bidding process is too cumbersome.

d) Excessive Regulations by Politicians – Politicians are short timers and each new politician keeps layering on policy on top of policy without regard of past policies. Everything is so prescriptive, and it ties the hands of our Departmental Managers to be flexible and nimble, and impedes their ability to successfully complete their mission.

Background:

  • UC Santa Barbara
  • USC
  • Assistant Director, Bureau of Street Services

Key Platform Issues:

  • Homelessness:  Improve access to financial data/information and make it public, audit Section 8 voucher program, audit Prop HHH annually
  • Technology: Audit City IT functions, beef up IT for more data-driven solutions, transition to 100% paperless process by City
  • City Beautification:  Manage assets better, develop sidewalk inventory to identify problems and then resources to address, better 311 platform, pressure CALTRANS for better maintenance of freeways
  • Cannabis:  increase retailers, expedite licensing process, push harder for more social equity owners, end cannabis drug testing for city employees, reduce taxes on retail sellers
  • Gas Tax: restrict its use to pay City pensions

Funding:

Endorsements:

FIVE REMAINING CONTROLLER CANDIDATES:

 

REID LIDOW

Background:

  • USC
  • Cambridge
  • Worked for Prime Minister Gordon Brown
  • Mayor Garcetti’ Executive Officer

Key Platform Issues:

  • Homelessness: coordinate all City offices involved, create a citywide parcel inventory, create rental unit database, increase outreach employees
  • Economy: lower rate of gross tax receipts, will assess city-owned offices and need for them, eliminate supply expenses
  • Racism:  will pursue replacing loss of generational wealth by minorities, identify racist place names
  • Climate: uncover any businesses with City contracts who are not climate compliant, eliminate wasteful City travel, streets for people and businesses
  • Corruption:  Monitor city employees productivity versus salaries, work more with advocates, create an open portal for public data

Funding:

Endorsements:

  • Mayor Eric Garetti
  • Senator Scott Weiner
  • Former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, UK
  • See all endorsements on website

Website:  www.reidlidowforcontroller.com

PAUL KORETZ

Background:

  • CD 5 City Councilmember
  • Chaired City Audits & Government Efficiency Committee
  • Served on West Hollywood City Council
  • State Assembly Member for 42nd District

Key Platform Issues:

  • Intends to identify all deficiencies and improve efficiencies of current City departments and their policies.

Funding:

  • Contributions $ 515,742.36
  • Matching Funds: $ 230,268.00
  • Expenditures: $ 464,543.82

Endorsements:

  • Mayor Eric Garcetti
  • LA County Supervisor Janet Hahn
  • Nury Martinez, President of LA City Council
  • A number of currently serving and former City Councilmembers (see website for complete listing)

Website: www.koretzforla.com

 

CAROLAN O’GABHANN

Background:

  • CSULA
  • Philanthropist and Teacher

Key Platform Issues:

  • Charter reform to include more diversity
  • Update City’s technology plan for increased cyber-security alerts
  • All fiscal audits must have a lens on climate change

Funding:

  • Contributions $ 0
  • Matching Funds: $ 0
  • Expenditures: $ 0

Endorsements: Unknown and Website: jcarolanogabhann.sathrall.com

 

ROB WILCOX

Background:

  • Served in City Controller’s office
  • Repped Controller’s office to the California Redistricting Commission
  • Repped Controller’s office to the LA City Attorney’s Office
  • Communications Director, Redistricting Commission
  • Deputy Communications Director, California High Speed Rail Authority
  • City Attorney’s Director of Community Engagement & Outreach

Key Platform Issues:

  • Homelessness:  pinpoint all City owned properties, yearly audits of Prop HHH funds, perform overall audit of City homelessness services
  • Public Safety: proposes to reinvent LAPD and reduce costs, will conduct investigations into LAPD disciplinary process and use of force, will audit when LAPD calls are necessary or if they could be handled by civilians, audit racial disparities in police stops.
  • Corruption:  Will scrutinize all special funds and sources of public money available to City Councilmembers and make it all public
  • Climate Justice:  Effectiveness and fairness of DWP initiatives, evaluate all car share type programs for efficiency,  audit City owned property for emission compliance

Funding:

Not accepting donations from major corporations.

Endorsements: None found and Website:  www.robforcontroller.com

 

KENNETH MEJIA

Background:

  • Woodbury University
  • Co-founded We Can Make A Difference
  • Member of LA Tenants Union
  • Neighborhood Council Member, Koreatown

Key Platform Issues:

  • Homelessness:  Account and audit homelessness funds and programs, calculate costs and audit cost of homeless encampment sweeps and criminalization, propose plans and recommendations on how to end homelessness, identify vacant land and property for housing, create more tools for people to connect to services, create oversight department
  • Housing: Create database of all housing units in Los Angeles, identify apartments with expiring housing covenants, calculate precise building costs on new projects, track rent increases on all rentals, increase taxes to create more revenue for the City
  • Environment:  account and audit funds and programs that address climate change, audit Garcetti’s Green New Deal, push to end all fossil fuel drilling, refining and infrastructure, audit fossil fuel investment in the City’s portfolio, audit LADWP, plant 90,000 trees in the City.

Funding:

Endorsements:

  • BikingInLA
  • CA Working Families Party
  • Ground Game LA
  • LA Times
  • Healthcare for All, LA
  • Dr. Melina Abdullah
  • Baba Akili
  • See complete list on website

Website:  www.mejiaforcontroller.com

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3 Responses to City Controller’s Race: Follow the Money

  1. Krishna Thangavelu says:

    These current and upcoming profiles are so helpful. Thank you!! I’ll share and encourage everyone to do the same on their social media.

  2. CC Fischer says:

    Wow! These political profiles are great stuff.

  3. Judith Freed says:

    Thanks for publishing these profiles and especially those who answered the questions put to them. It is not easy to get good background material on candidates for a lot of the offices that are so important to our city.

Comments are closed.