Amid a major budget-slashing session Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council voted to pay $220,000 in consulting fees to Planning Director Kenneth Topping, who recently resigned under pressure.
Topping announced his resignation on Oct. 30, after a behind-the-scenes effort by critics to remove him from the powerful post. At the time, Mayor Tom Bradley praised Topping’s performance, and Topping said he was not asked to resign.
The consulting contract requires Topping to assist the city in drawing up an earthquake preparedness plan over the next 18 months. The contract works out to an annual salary of about $146,000--substantially more than the $111,812 Topping earned as planning director.
The council voted 10 to 1 to approve the contract, which had been drawn up at Bradley’s request. A spokesman for the mayor refused to answer questions about the matter.
City Council President John Ferraro said he and his colleagues had been informed by John J. Driscoll, city personnel director, that Topping would refuse to step down unless the council approved the contract. Because of civil service rules, Ferraro said, it would be virtually impossible to fire Topping.
Driscoll denied that Topping had made the consulting contract a condition of his resignation. Topping could not be reached for comment.
Only Councilman Ernani Bernardi voted against the contract, saying it was a waste of money that could be used for higher priorities, such as paying for four police officers.
“We keep hearing all of these tear-jerking stories about the budget crunch the city’s in,” Bernardi said. “We’re going to cut back on police officers and other city services. Well, this $220,000 will at least keep four of those officers on the job.”
Bernardi called Topping’s contract to consult on the city’s earthquake preparedness plan a “plum” offered by officials who felt Topping was not doing his job and wanted him removed.
Driscoll said that Topping was uniquely qualified to advise the city on its earthquake plan because he has chaired a committee for the last three years that is working on the plan.
“This is a big job and a lot of work,” Driscoll said. “He’s the expert in the field. . . . I think the product is well worth the money the city is spending.”
Even Zev Yaroslavsky, the budget-slashing chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, backed the payment. “If we have a major earthquake next week then people will say, “Why didn’t we do it last year?” Yaroslavsky said.
A short time later, Yaroslavsky implored the council to ratify a citywide hiring freeze ordered by Bradley and a number of other budget-cutting measures, including a freeze on the purchase of equipment. Yaroslavsky predicted a deficit of $150 million over the next 18 months.
Only the Police Department was spared a complete hiring freeze. Under a compromise worked out earlier, the Police Department will be allowed to hire some new recruits, but the force will be reduced by about 70 over the next year through attrition.
The council voted 11 to 1 to ratify the cuts, with only Bernardi objecting.