After what was supposed to be a year-long nationwide search to find the very best, most qualified, most capable city administrative officer to advise and guide Los Angeles leaders, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced this week that the right man for the job had been — surprise! — right there in the office down the hall all the time. Indeed, the best man in the country turned out to be Rich Llewellyn, his former counsel and long-time aide, who has been serving as interim CAO. The runner-up for the job was Matt Szabo, the mayor's deputy chief of staff.
These, by the way, are very same names floated more than a year ago, when then-City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana announced he was leaving for a new job.
At that time, several City Council members and City Hall watchers said they were worried that Garcetti would pick a close ally or staff member. They thought — and we agreed — that a close aide might serve as a "yes" man in a job that ought to be held by a person with measure of political independence, honesty and gumption. The CAO is one of the most important officials in the city, responsible for providing independent budget and policy analysis. To do that well requires a willingness to stand up to the mayor and the council.
Councilman David Ryu called on the mayor at that time to conduct a broad search to find an "independent candidate with the astute knowledge, leadership and vision to advise the city's policymakers." And Council President Herb Wesson said the mayor committed to conducting a nationwide search and involving the City Council in the process. But this week, Ryu told The Times he saw "no evidence that a comprehensive search was done to find a new city administrative officer."
In fact, there was no head hunter hired to scope out the best possible candidates. There was no consultant to vet the choices. The nationwide search consisted of sending letters to recommended candidates and posting an advertisement on the sites of various professional organizations and on social media.
As for City Council consultation, a handful of council members interviewed the candidates for the job just a couple of hours before Garcetti made his announcement. That sure doesn't sound like the City Council was an "active participant" in the search, as was expected. That's a shame because the CAO serves three demanding masters: the mayor, the City Council and the public. And if the CAO is seen as too close to one, he or she loses credibility with the others and becomes less effective.
In the end, the mayor chose an ally, not a truly independent CAO. Garcetti is famously conflict-averse. What better way to avoid conflict — or at least public conflict — over spending decisions, labor contracts or the progress of key initiatives, than to pick a loyalist?
The mayor, however, insists Llewellyn is the ideal candidate based on his many years of working in political offices in the city and county, and based on his temperament. Llewellyn is "the least intimidated, least political person I know," Garcetti said.
We hope he's right and that Llewellyn rises to the occasion. Los Angeles is at crossroads. Voters and lawmakers have decided to spend billions and billions of tax dollars to alleviate homelessness, build transportation systems, expand parks, repair roads and fix the sidewalks. The decisions city leaders make in the next few years will determine whether the money is well spent and whether the projects deliver lasting, positive change for Los Angeles.
The mayor and City Council need a CAO who will give them solid financial advice and who will push them to make hard but necessary choices. The public needs a CAO who is an advocate for fiscal responsibility and efficient, transparent government. Santana was CAO for eight years, and he set a high bar for the job. He risked the ire of the mayor and City Council with his reports, such as one that questioned the financial plan for the city's bid to host the 2024 Olympics. He made clear his opposition to a city plan to create garbage-hauling monopolies; that advice proved prescient as customers now have been rebelling against higher fees and poor service for trash pickup.
If his selection is confirmed by the City Council, Llewellyn could prove to be the sharp analyst and truth teller that Los Angeles needs. He's a savvy, experienced City Hall hand and he is certainly capable of being an independent operator, if he chooses to be. Let's hope he does.