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Jumping Jehosephat! We're Jonesing For a Jamming General Manager at the LADOT!

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ALPERN AT LARGE-I really don't care much for conspiracy theories, but I admit to being confused, confounded and curious about the timing of Mayor Garcetti's change of General Managers at the LADOT.  In short, Jaime de la Vega is going, and Parks and Recreation Department head Jon Kirk Mukri will serve as a temporary replacement, according to the Times.  

 

And while most of us probably are giving this a collective shrug with a "whatever, one politically-appointed bureaucrat being replaced with another" attitude, transportation advocates and neighborhood council board members can't ignore this ... because the LADOT is probably one of the most underappreciated, understaffed departments in the City.  

(And as the son of a retired civil servant, who was both a civil engineer and an assistant department head for the City of Los Angeles, I cannot ignore a LA City civil service staffing change during an era when department heads have to be more political, and less independent and academic, in their abilities to rise through the ranks.) 

This change at the top need not be that big a deal, or that big a surprise.  De La Vega was a Villaraigosa appointee and our new mayor (I think most of us still consider Garcetti to be a "new" mayor, right?) wants his own stamp of leadership when running a city that is now his responsibility.  Perhaps De La Vega was too much his own man, and Mukri is more of a "yes, sir, boss!" kind of guy. 

So the leadership of the departments appear to be either staying or leaving based on their ability to work with and meet the goals of our new mayor (which are still somewhat nebulous and ill-defined, as arguably they should be).  Yet Garcetti, despite being a new mayor, is far from being a "newbie" to City Hall and Downtown. 

Witness the departure of embattled Fire Department head Brian Cummings and the departure of Port of LA executive Geraldine Knatz, versus the continued presence of budget chief Miguel Santana and LA World Airports executive Gina Marie Lindsay.  All four of these leaders have vital functions in the economic and operational survival of Los Angeles, and clearly some are doing better than others at demonstrating their continued value. 

And perhaps--as the Times reports--De La Vega's announcement of resignation comes after more than 200 department engineers and other workers attended a City Council meeting to publicly criticize De La Vega's management style, which involved leaving key positions unfilled and the employees concerns ignored. 

If anything, Garcetti is someone who strives for congeniality and consensus, and to get things done with a calm, smiling, low-tone approach that gets things done with as little rancor or hurt feelings as possible.  So if De La Vega's troops are a bunch of unhappy campers, then clearly the mayor does well to do what's needed to help morale.  I am not sure why Mukri was chosen to fill De La Vega's shoes, but we'll have to wait and see. 

Jaime De La Vega's stint as LADOT head was not without its successes.  Synchronizing the city's 4,398 stoplights and adding more than 120 miles of bike lanes, to say nothing of pushing through a "complete streets" refocusing of the LADOT, are hardly small accomplishments.  Before that, De La Vega helped Villaraigosa pass Measure R to raise an estimated $40 billion for L.A. County transportation projects. 

Yet for those of us who work with the LADOT, that department was and is woefully and frighteningly understaffed.  During the Villaraigosa era, LA City Planning and the now-disbanded LA Community Redevelopment Agency sucked up too much oxygen in the room when new megaprojects were being considered...and the LADOT didn't have the empowerment to stop them when needed. 

It's one thing to be a visionary, but it's another thing to be an engineer.  A planner or a politician can dream of tall towers, big projects and huge public works projects, but it's the engineers who need to say, "Wait a minute--we don't have the infrastructure to build that.  There's not enough water, the roads don't have enough capacity, and the variances we're offering have no fiscal responsibility assigned to the builders to make this all work!" 

For example, the Great Streets Initiative of Mayor Garcetti is focused on transportation, and to making LA's main thoroughfares into more lively, pedestrian-friendly destinations.  Garcetti's lobbying effort to get the feds to help pay for two extremely-high-ranking transportation projects--the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Regional Connector--also ranks high on his to-do list. 

(And here's to hoping Garcetti will include LAX Connect on his list of projects to fight for--the time is now to connect LAX with our growing countywide Metro Rail system!) 

Yet the venerable ideas of fixing streets, placing stop signs and making L.A. more walkable--which apparently was not being done well as per the complaints of LADOT staff have both a connection with De La Vega and a larger series of paradigms and problems that must be fixed at the mayoral level. 

We are on the verge of asking taxpayers to pay for fixing our streets at a time when developers are getting away with murder (their parking and traffic-mitigating requirements are back in the 1950's-1970's, and have virtually no relevance to modern transportation needs), variances are being treated as if their requestors deserved them as "by-right", and citizen groups are being treated like criminals when they point out our inability to overbuild. 

We're not talking about building, but overbuilding.  Not about tearing down old projects and creating shiny new ones, but constructing gigantic projects that have supporting infrastructure that is decades-overdue in their renovation and revitalization. 

And we have an understaffed, underempowered LADOT that doesn't have the ability to shut down bad policy, when it's obvious to everyone with a basic concept of physics that said policy was ill-advised and unsustainable. 

Neighborhood Councils can and should have the ability to work with the LADOT and LAPD staffs to address issues of safety and traffic in a timely and effective manner, and all three of these entities need to be able to do their jobs without being stepped on and disempowered by either a Planning Department or a City Hall/Downtown that make their jobs impossible. 

Funding, staffing and operating an effective LADOT means hiring, operational changes and adhering to the City Charter and the law when it comes to everything from CEQA to overbuilding to honest and realistic traffic mitigations and paying for requested variances in order to establish community benefits in return for these variances...or even for "by-right" projects in order to adhere to 21st Century transportation/infrastructure needs. 

Good luck to Mr. Mukri, and good luck to any long-term leadership at the LADOT.  Hopefully, the morale at the LADOT will now improve...but the ability for the LADOT to succeed in its day-to-day and long-term goals is ultimately in the hands of the Mayor and the City Council. 

And let's hope that any new, long-term General Manager of the LADOT will have the ability to both lead the LADOT as well as confront our political leadership in order to allow the LADOT staff to effectively do their jobs.

 

(Ken Alpern is a Westside Village Zone Director and Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Co-Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at [email protected] This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at www.fogl.us . The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.)

-cw

  

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 11 Issue 89

Pub: Nov 5, 2013

 

 

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