February 10, 2013
In the five-man race for Los Angeles controller, the best-known candidate is also the one who's had the best view of city government. That would be Dennis Zine, who is finishing his 12th and final year representing the City Council's 3rd District after working for three decades in the Los Angeles Police Department. But two other candidates from outside City Hall have put forward more compelling cases for their election. Ron Galperin has worked with the city and county governments to improve collections and eliminate loopholes. Cary Brazeman has been a high-profile critic of city managers, mounting pressure campaigns against several flawed city initiatives. Brazeman offers the more far-reaching agenda, but Galperin's training and experience make him the candidate more likely to turn his recommendations into real improvements in city government. For that reason, The Times endorses Galperin.
The controller once stood as the city's last line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse, able to refuse to sign any check he or she deemed improper. The charter reforms of 1999, however, broadened the office's purview while trimming its authority. The controller lost the ability to block payments but gained the power to audit the performance of city departments as well as their finances. Former Controller Laura Chick used the expanded authority to highlight the need for change in city government's core functions, including its approaches to gang violence, fires and disasters.
Today, with the city facing large and persistent deficits, Los Angeles needs an energetic controller who can not only expose waste and fraud but also find ways to get more out of every dollar the city spends. That requires someone with both an accountant's eye for detail and a reformer's creativity — an ability to spot problems and inefficiencies even in departments with no obvious dysfunction. It also requires tough-minded independence.
The controller can't force city officials to do anything, however. The only cudgel the office holds is its ability to make headlines, and as Chick demonstrated, that's not necessarily enough to provoke a response from the mayor or City Council. Zine argues that the relationships he's built inside city government would give him a unique ability to turn the recommendations of his audits into action. But while Zine has been a fine advocate for his district, he hasn't been a prominent critic of the financial practices that have put the city in its current fix. And there's little in his service on the council to suggest he has the analytical aptitude for improving the bureaucracy. His pursuit of the controller's job appears to reflect his desire to remain in office rather than a fascination with the nuts and bolts of city operations.
The other four candidates in the race have yet to hold elective office, although not necessarily for lack of trying. Two of them — Jeff Bornstein, a small-businessman in Winnetka who sells audio-video equipment, and Ankur Patel, a graduate student at Cal State University Northridge — are long shots who aren't up to the job's demands, although Patel's proposal to enlist citizen activists to scrutinize city departments is intriguing. Both Galperin and Brazeman, on the other hand, seem ready not just to fulfill the controller's responsibilities but to do it well.
Galperin, an attorney in Century City, has been a longtime critic of inefficient and ineffective city practices that waste or fail to collect millions of dollars. His critiques landed him a spot as chairman of the Ad Hoc Commission on Revenue Efficiency, which the council established in 2010 to look for shortcomings in the city's collections. It produced nine reports in a year and a half of work, identifying more than $100 million in annual revenue and savings from improvements in city purchases, permits and a slew of other functions. Galperin's persistence helped persuade officials to put a number of the commission's recommendations into practice, such as its call for an inspector general overseeing city collections. But other proposals hit a dead end in the council's Audits and Governmental Efficiency Committee, which Zine chairs.
The Times endorsed Galperin four years ago when he ran for an open seat in the council's 5th District, noting his "keen interest in improving accountability and fiscal prudence in City Hall." His advisory work for the city and county shows Galperin to be detail-oriented, driven and imaginative, especially when it comes to the revenue side of the ledger. His main weakness is that he's focused too often on revenue, overlooking the controller's broader ability to push for better city services.
Brazeman, who runs a marketing company on the Westside, recognizes just how wide the controller's franchise became when voters adopted the new charter. His vision for the office is by far the most ambitious: He sees it as a way to prod departments to make the city a better place to live and work. Brazeman says he would use the controller's performance audits to try to streamline business permits, fix streets, improve how the police and fire departments allocate their resources and hold down salaries and benefits for city workers.
For someone with no experience in local government, that's a big lift. But Brazeman has shown as an activist in recent years that he's adept at analyzing city operations and finances. He was an early critic of the Fire Department's lagging response times, and his warnings about the city's exposure to risk on the downtown stadium project led to important changes in the financing.
Brazeman is right that the city's financial problems are too severe to be solved just by collecting revenue more efficiently, and that the controller has an important role to play in improving the day-in, day-out operations of city departments. But an effective controller also needs to be focused and persistent to bring about the changes the office's audits demand. Otherwise, he'll be little more than a headline-grabbing gadfly. In our judgment, Galperin is the best choice on that score, and the candidate most likely to develop an effective working relationship with the departments whose performance the controller scrutinizes. The Times urges a vote for Ron Galperin for controller.
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