PATT MORRISON ASKS

Laura Chick: California's eagle eye

The former L.A. City Council member and city controller is the state's new watchdog over federal stimulus funds.

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.

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