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Laura Chick: California's eagle eye

Management ChangeAccounting and AuditingPoliticsLaura ChickGovernment

If I were writing her business card, it would read, "Kicking butt in sensible shoes since 1993." Laura Chick has enemies. I am not one of them. The woman who's leaving Los Angeles City Hall after two terms on the City Council and two as city controller is stepping up to the appointed job of inspector general of California's $48-billion share of federal stimulus money. Editorial writers have praised her as an eagle eye in a green eyeshade, a grandma turned pit bull. A Toronto newspaper column said Canada needs its own Laura Chick. From her City Hall office, where her unsparing audits have left few stones unturned or uncast, she's just moving into her new quarters near the state Capitol. There, she's arranged "Morgan shelves" for pictures of her 6-year-old granddaughter and, arriving soon, her voodoo doll collection.

Voodoo dolls ... anybody we recognize?

No, they're all purposely anonymous. I do have one, on one side it's male, and on the other side it's female, and it comes with lots of pins.

What's the biggest difference between being an elected official and an appointed one?

On the one hand, as inspector general, I am independent and I will guard that independence fiercely. But I answered to the public and only to the public as elected city controller. Here I'm reporting to the public but the governor hired me.

How do you get your mind around $48 billion?

I have to catch myself; I start to say "millions," and I have to switch to "billions." And it is a little bit breathtaking to grasp the enormity of these funds. I'm putting the recipients of the [stimulus] funds on notice that we are watching. And it is a "we," from the feds to the state on down. One thing I learned in eight years as city controller, when light is shined in corners, it's amazing what scurries out.

Ew!

I'm sorry, but it's true, and it is "ew" because human beings are capable of lofty, admirable things, and also the opposite. And 48, 50 billion dollars -- there's an awful lot of temptation to spend some of that money the way some of the less admirable folks might want to. That money is to be spent to rev up the economy, to create jobs for everyday folks out there in our neighborhoods. And for me, the second piece is the way we spend this money to rev up the people's trust and confidence in government again.

Many people think that if you just cut "waste, fraud and abuse" from government, we won't have any problems with the budget. How do you persuade people there is waste, but it's not the biggest part of the budget?

I've heard those statements for years as an elected official, and they aren't accurate, but I don't want to guess at what percent is "waste, fraud and abuse." It's small, but when you're talking about millions or billions, it's a significant amount of money, and $1,000 plants a lot of trees, $100,000 hires a police officer. So even though it's a small percentage of the total, those are precious dollars.

What will you miss and not miss about City Hall?

The human beings I've connected with over the years I'll miss the most. I'm definitely not going to miss the dysfunctional politics with L.A. City Hall.

So you really think it's better in Sacramento?

You beat me to it! I'm sure that I will find some of the same, but it will be different, so at least it'll be a change.

Where do you think you've been most frustrated at City Hall? It's not exactly a best-practices system there.

The city of Los Angeles is anything but a state-of-the-art, best-practices, role-model city. It's the 21st century, we're the second-largest city in the United States of America, and we are not any of those things. We could be, without rocket science. So that has been incredibly frustrating to me. The people of Los Angeles are kind of knock-your-socks-off with talent and diversity and energy, but the city government is not. I think we have an awesome vacuum of leadership in L.A. city government that's been going on for a while.

You endorsed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa twice. How do you think he's been doing?

I'm including everyone in what I'm saying in terms of the leadership and solving problems. I'm disappointed.

Which of your audits do you think is the most significant?

I have maybe five or six, but I'm going to make it easy on myself and say the DNA rape kit audit [which showed that thousands had never been tested]. Because it's very tangible and the results, while [still] playing out, are more clear and specific than some of the other audits' impact. You know, I've been accused of being a media hound, and I've pled guilty, but I've always explained that it's because if the public is not aware of the work I'm doing, of the audits and what they say, then nothing will change. Somebody famous said if you're not indignant, you're not paying attention.

Where do you think you made the biggest difference?

I think, I hope, that I have changed forever the amount of transparency in City Hall. I think that things will never be as muddled and behind closed doors, but I'm saying that with some hesitancy. I'm hoping the public has gotten used to hearing from the controller's office [about] what the heck's going on in City Hall, and that their appetite to know more will continue.

So what's your one piece of advice to your successor, Wendy Greuel?

The same advice that Rick Tuttle [Chick's predecessor] gave me: that the controller's office is a lonely place. I'm not a lonely person, but what he meant, and it's true, is you really cannot be the best buddy of anyone in City Hall because you never know when an audit is going to scoop them up, and you don't want to have any inhibitions about what you're going to look at and what the findings might be.

Where do you think you get this ferocity?

Somewhere along the way I developed a very strong sense of right and wrong, of fairness and injustice. I very much remember in third grade, the first year I went to school in California, we had a citizenship box. You could put notes in it if somebody did something wrong or something was going wrong. Once a week, the president of the class opened the box up and read the notes. And if you were accused of something and you felt it wasn't accurate, you said -- I'll never forget this -- "I am accused unjustly." Eight-year-olds doing this! The concept of just and unjust accusations has stuck with me since then.

With your new job, could we be hearing a new verb, "to Chick" or "to be Chicked," as a play on your name? You must have heard a lot of that by now. Can you work it to your advantage?

My titles are pretty funny when you think about it. "Inspector General Chick" or "General Chick" or "Inspector Chick." When I married Robert Chick, I recognized the uniqueness of the name. I have a sense of humor about it. I've often said change the "er" in "controller" to "ing" and I'm every man's worst nightmare.

Do you hate the word "feisty"?

No, actually. Somehow "feisty" and "scrappy" do apply sometimes. Sometimes I think they're fairly descriptive of my strategy and my style.

patt.morrison@latimes.com.

The "Patt Morrison Asks" interviews are edited and excerpted from longer taped and transcribed conversations. In this process, questions and answers may be shortened, removed entirely, and related questions or answers may be combined. "Uhms" and "ers" and the like are excised; words and descriptions added for clarification are bracketed. In editing, care is taken not to take questions or answers out of context.

Editor's Note: It is our treat today to debut this new look for the work of one of Los Angeles' most recognized and appreciated writers, Patt Morrison. Patt has been a columnist for the Los Angeles Times since 1992, and her work has taken many forms, appearing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, in Metro and most recently on these pages. As of today, Patt explores another iteration of her column, one that combines her deep knowledge of Southern California with her sharp writing, quick wit and skills as an interviewer. "Ask Patt Morrison" will appear in this space every Saturday and will feature leading thinkers, policymakers, cultural figures and otherwise fascinating and important people -- all in conversation with Patt. As she rolls out these columns, we'll collect them at latimes.com/pattasks so you can read past interviews as well as the current week's. We hope you'll sit in every Saturday.

Jim Newton

Editor of the Editorial Pages

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