A Major Player Prefers Backstage

Times Staff Writers

He’s been called the 16th City Council member, the most powerful person in Los Angeles City Hall and, on occasion, he’s even been compared to God.

As the city’s chief legislative analyst, Ronald F. Deaton is charged with analyzing policy and providing the City Council with dispassionate advice. But his job stretches far beyond that of a policy wonk. An unassuming figure with thick glasses, jowly features and a raspy chortle, Deaton functions as the council’s consigliere and Los Angeles’ de facto city manager.

He structured the financing for Staples Center, negotiated the consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee reforms of the Police Department and vetted the city’s park and buildings bonds.


But those are just the big things. After 37 years with the city, Deaton personally handles almost every one of the hundreds of pieces of paper that pass through the ornate council chamber each week, administering everything from moving furniture to hiring police officers.

During his reign, the job of the chief legislative analyst -- or simply “CLA” as the position is known around City Hall -- has evolved to the point where Deaton operates as the council’s policy writer, political strategist and gatekeeper.

“He has taken the structural power of the office and leveraged it with his intellect and his personal skills to make him probably the most influential person in city government,” said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Deaton friend who has served 19 years on the City Council.

Added downtown activist Brady Westwater: “I would call him God, but I’m afraid that would be a demotion.”

With term limits opening the door this year to a new batch of council members unfamiliar with the city’s bureaucracy, the 15-member council relies increasingly on Deaton’s institutional memory and guidance.

From the moment new lawmakers step into City Hall, Deaton is by their side, helping them secure their city cars and furnish their offices. He is their employee, but they turn to him on matters large and small, seeking advice on strategy or clues to navigating city departments -- even help in getting along with each other.

The dynamic has led to an unspoken pact between the elected officials and the quiet bureaucrat: He shows them how things work and they give him power.

“Now, more than ever, he is the man that runs the council,” said former Councilman Richard Alatorre. “He’s the only one who has the breadth of experience and knowledge about how government works in Los Angeles.”

Deaton is “the brain and brawn behind the City Council,” said former Mayor Richard Riordan, who left office in 2001. “If he’s on your side, he can really make things happen. If he’s against you, you have some problems.” Deaton, who avoids interviews, dismissed the topic of his influence with a combination of amusement and irritation during a recent, and rare, on-the-record session.

“If I was, in fact, that powerful, they’d get rid of me,” he said while sitting in his second-floor office, directly below that of Mayor James K. Hahn. Photos of his wife and grandchildren gazed out from around the office. On his desk was a book titled “The Conquerors.”

In many ways, Deaton, 60, is an odd fit as the right-hand man to the Los Angeles City Council. He is a Republican who works for one of the most liberal bodies in the United States; an Orange County resident who has dedicated his career to shaping Los Angeles; a history buff in a city notoriously forgetful about its past.

An avid reader of military history, Deaton brings a keen strategic mind to his job, comparing the process of navigating the city bureaucracy with that of winning a Revolutionary War battle.

“Don’t get in and get outflanked,” he said about his approach. “If they’re going to come after you, know where they’re going to come after you.”

His mastery of strategy helped Deaton outmaneuver Hahn this spring in a budget showdown between the mayor and the council. Hahn wanted to hire 320 additional police officers, an expense that struck Deaton as financially unsound. He produced a budget analysis that showed the city could be facing shortfalls of as much as $280 million the next year if the police hires went through.

But council members were in a politically tricky situation: Opposing a budget they considered fiscally irresponsible would put them in the unpopular position of voting against police officers. Councilman Nick Pacheco, for one, said the standoff left him unable to sleep.

Deaton Crafts Plan

Enter Deaton, with a plan that endorsed the concept of expanding the Police Department but delayed approving the money for it until the city’s financial picture was clearer. Council President Alex Padilla presented it to his colleagues and they fell in line, camping out in the council chamber for a rare afternoon session to overrule the mayor.

It’s a testament to his influence that officials who criticize Deaton’s role do not want to question him on the record.

“Calling him the 16th council member doesn’t accurately describe the power he has over the council,” said one current member who did not wish to be named. “And when you have that much power and you don’t have a vote, I don’t think that’s healthy for a body.”

In many ways, Deaton’s role is enigmatic, and he likes it that way. He keeps a low public profile, quietly leaning against a pillar during council meetings, watching the action from the side. He is rarely quoted, and he has been known to laughingly threaten reporters with dire consequences if his name appears in print.

But Deaton is so integral to the process at City Hall that some say he often seems to be guiding his bosses, instead of the other way around.

“Ron and his staff tell me what I think on a regular basis,” joked the notoriously independent former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter during her goodbye address to the council earlier this summer.

It’s not that the CLA pressures them on how to vote, council members said. But they often end up following his lead because they cannot match his background and knowledge of an issue. And without him, they can accomplish little.

“That brain of his is a vast storehouse of knowledge, with everything from complicated financial transactions the city has undertaken to the relationship the city had with a member of Congress 14 years ago to the color of coal at the plant in Utah,” said Robin Kramer, who served as Riordan’s chief of staff. “He’s encyclopedic.”

When council members want to shepherd a complicated project through the city bureaucracy, they turn to Deaton. When they are struggling to get money for their district, they turn to Deaton. When they need to translate rhetoric into policy, they turn to Deaton.

Without his guidance, council members “would be walking into dark rooms and bumping into things,” said former Councilman Mike Hernandez. “It’s a lot easier when you have a shining light on everything.”

In 1996, for example, Hernandez dreamed of building more recreation areas for youths, but he had no idea how to do it. Deaton came up with Proposition K, a ballot measure that provided millions in bond money to refurbish parks around the city.

Sometimes Deaton seems to play an almost parental role, helping council members work out their differences with each other and even guiding them through difficult personal troubles. Hernandez remembers when he and then-Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores were at loggerheads over a pot of money that both wanted for their districts. After Flores pushed a funding plan favorable to her own project through a council committee, a piqued Hernandez said that, in retaliation, he had voted against another bill that was important to her.

“Deaton talked to me very sternly,” Hernandez said. “He said, ‘That’s a spite vote, and you won’t survive here if you do spite votes.’ ” In the end, Hernandez reversed his position and voted for Flores’ bill.

With an annual salary of $272,922, the chief legislative analyst is the second-highest-paid official in the city, making substantially more than the mayor and the police chief. (David Wiggs, general manager of the Department of Water and Power, who pulls in more than $300,000, is the highest-paid.) The council bumped up Deaton’s salary by $20,000 back in 1996 to keep him from jumping ship to the county, which was wooing him. Since then he’s received annual 3% raises.

Former state Assemblyman Richard Katz, who sparred with Deaton during last year’s effort to create a separate San Fernando Valley city, said that Deaton has “an extraordinary amount of power for an unelected official.

“Ron takes maximum advantage of it and does it very, very well,” Katz said. “Historically, the City Council doesn’t have an opinion without Ron Deaton’s input. From my perspective ... it ought to be elected officials who are setting the agenda.”

Admirers of Deaton agree that, in principle, an unelected city employee should not hold so much sway.

“In somebody else’s hands, I think it would be dangerous,” Alatorre said. “But in Ron’s hands, I think he’s fair.”

Deaton portrays himself as a simple repository of city history whom council members can draw on for helpful solutions to thorny problems.

“I have more history than most, and because I can explain things that have gone on and other alternatives, I think that there’s this perception ... that I have the influence,” he said. But, he added, “I’m not an elected official. I don’t get the vote. I just get to advise.”

An illustration of both his influence and his devotion to city history came during the $299-million renovation of City Hall during the 1990s. At one point he prodded the Department of Water and Power to restore a fountain on the south lawn built in 1933 as a tribute to U.S. Sen. Frank Putnam Flint, who wrote the legislation that helped bring water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles.

Deaton was flabbergasted to discover that DWP officials didn’t remember Flint or his contribution to the city.

In recalling his outrage, the CLA revealed a rare glimpse of his power: “I said, ‘You’re not going to participate; you’re going to do it,’ ” Deaton recalled. “And the other thing is, you’re going to find out who Flint was.”

The fountain was restored.

Longtime colleagues describe Deaton as one of a rare breed: someone inherently driven by a desire to serve.

“This sounds real corny, but he embraces the role of a true public servant,” said William Fujioka, the city administrative officer. “Ron loves this city. This is not a job; it is more of an avocation.”

Galanter recalled that Deaton once made an offhand comment about the role of government that so moved her that she wrote it down and kept it by her computer. “I was talking to Ron on the phone, and he said, ‘I have to say something here. Remember, this is a Republican talking, but I have to say this: Government is not like a business, because government has to be fair,’ ” she recalled.

Underneath Deaton’s sometimes gruff exterior is a doting father of four and grandfather of eight who collects mugs from zoos, worries about his begonias and has begun testimony to the City Council by recounting conversations with his wife.

Unintended Role

Deaton ended up at City Hall by accident. After he graduated from Long Beach State with a degree in economics, a friend from high school told him about an opening at the DWP.

He started there in 1965 at age 22, then worked his way up the ranks, joining the office of then-Chief Legislative Analyst Ken Spiker in 1976. When Riordan took office in 1993, the new mayor tapped then-CLA William McCarley to be his first chief of staff and the council promptly named Deaton to replace McCarley.

Now he oversees a staff of 50, refuses to carry a pager and often tries to ditch his cell phone. To get through the day, he drinks three cups of black coffee from a cup emblazoned with the symbol of the Port of Los Angeles. For water breaks, he sips from a DWP mug. His desktop clock bears the symbol of the airport.

“All of our capital programs have his mark,” Fujioka said of Deaton’s role in drafting the bonds to finance new parks, libraries, police and fire stations around the city. “They should let him put his handprint in the cement.”

That doesn’t sound like Deaton’s style. Figuratively, his handprints already are all over Los Angeles, but he has never been comfortable acknowledging it. When strangers ask what he does, Deaton said, “I just tell them I work for the City Council.”