Mayor's Wisdom in Casting RLA in a Supporting Role

Shortly after Mayor Richard Riordan's election, he directed an adviser, Bill Ouchi, to deliver a blunt message to Rebuild L.A., the heavily criticized private agency that had been created to stimulate the city's recovery from the riots.

Ouchi made it clear to RLA leaders that the mayor no longer expects or wants the organization, created by Tom Bradley, to have the sole responsibility of resurrecting the business life of Los Angeles' impoverished areas. Instead, he said, RLA would simply be a component of a much broader strategy run by the mayor and the City Council.

"If you are RLA or any other organization that wants to get on board to help, that's wonderful," Ouchi told me in explaining the new role of RLA under the Riordan Administration. "But if you aren't able or interested, that doesn't mean we're going to stop. . . . If you're ready and able, you get moving, and you hop aboard our train."

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Having publicly elected officials take responsibility for the economic health of the city sounds like common sense, but it's a big change for Los Angeles.

During his tenure, Bradley handed off important tasks to committees he would select out of the city's pool of established business or legal leaders. This was how the 1984 Olympics, run by Peter V. Ueberroth, operated. It was how Bradley reacted to the Rodney G. King beating--appointing eminent attorney Warren Christopher to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department.

The handoff approach worked well in both cases. Ueberroth, understanding the immense value of the Olympic logo, made the games profitable by marketing them to companies that were eager to be sponsors. In the case of the King beating, Christopher led a quick and focused investigation that won the public's respect.

As Los Angeles smoldered after the riots, Bradley called Ueberroth for an encore. But the job of economic recovery facing the city turned out to be too big and complex for the Olympics master and his ad hoc team. For the riots and fires were one episode in a long story of regional economic decline.

First, there was the closing in the 1960s and early '70s of the big auto and tire manufacturing plants in southeastern Los Angeles County. This was followed by the drastic shrinking of the aerospace industry that had been the region's economic backbone. A final blow was the nationwide recession, particularly bad in Southern California, which crippled the region's construction and land development business.

In addition to economic forces it could not control, RLA had its own internal problems.

L.A. had changed since Ueberroth's Olympic triumphs. Some of the old powers in town had died or retired. Once-strong businesses were dead or on life support systems. Political and economic competition between Latinos, African Americans, Asians and whites had intensified.

As Ueberroth struggled to assemble a team, he was confronted with ethnic politics that were new to him. As a result, RLA was saddled with an enormous bureaucracy that included a politically correct team of four co-chairs and an 80-person board of directors. Under this leadership, the organization strayed from its original purpose of economic revival and moved into areas as diverse as race relations and child care.

RLA also was remote, even secretive. Someone at City Hall was telling me how RLA was incredibly slow in returning calls to elected officials. "Oh, I thought it was just the press they never called back," I said. "No," my source said, "it's everybody."

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At Riordan's urging, RLA is reorganizing and returning to its original charter of bringing more businesses into areas hurt by the riots. Meanwhile, the action in economic development will shift to where it should have been in the first place--in the mayor's office and in the City Council chambers.

Two weeks ago, Deputy Mayor Rae James led an Administration delegation to Washington to scout out federal aid. The information will be used to develop an economic plan for L.A. that is being prepared by Riordan's senior staff.

City Council committees are beginning work on measures that would make Los Angeles eligible to become one of the Clinton Administration's "empowerment zones," bringing in federal aid and tax breaks for businesses. This effort will require the council and the mayor to cooperate with several Los Angeles County cities, and the county itself; reflecting the regional nature of our problems, the zone will probably cut across municipal boundaries.

Los Angeles will also have to work with the state, the county and other cities in beginning the Alameda Corridor, the proposed high-speed freight train link between the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors and Downtown Los Angeles. This project, combined with the new Century Freeway to Los Angeles International Airport, will give the region an improved transportation network that could attract businesses providing thousands of jobs.

RLA is just a small part of all this. That is why Riordan is smart to de-emphasize the organization. As mayoral adviser Ouchi put it: "The mayor's interest is in finding the best approach for getting our economy moving again. If RLA can play a role, or if anyone can play a role, then the mayor is interested. And if they can't play a role, then they're free to go off on their own path. There is no reason for the mayor to particularly embrace them."

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