Mayor fires L.A. transit chief

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday fired the city transportation chief he once predicted would “be instrumental in easing traffic congestion.”

In March 2006, on a downtown bridge over the Hollywood Freeway, Villaraigosa held a news conference to announce his hiring of Gloria Jeff, who was then head of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

On Thursday night, Jeff was told by the mayor’s office that she had until Friday afternoon to resign or she would be fired.


Jeff said she received her termination letter Friday afternoon. It arrived just minutes before Villaraigosa announced at a City Hall news conference that he was making a “leadership change” and that Rita Robinson, director of the city’s Bureau of Sanitation, would take over the transportation job.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation, known as LADOT, oversees traffic signals as well as the DASH bus system and parking meter enforcement.

Villaraigosa declined to say exactly why he fired Jeff. “You make changes when you believe it’s time for a new direction and I believe it’s time for a new direction,” Villaraigosa said.

Jeff has openly clashed with members of the City Council and her own staff at times. This week, 54 of the city’s traffic officers signed a “vote of no confidence” petition that criticized Jeff for making cutbacks in the agency and potentially violating city-union agreements.

The mayor’s office, and some council members too, privately criticized Jeff for frequently traveling to out-of-state conferences and being slow to implement traffic fixes. In particular, the mayor’s office was unhappy that Jeff had failed to develop a strategic plan for the department.

Jeff said she met Thursday with Robin Kramer, Villaraigosa’s chief of staff, and mayoral lawyer Thomas Saenz. Both told her she needed to resign by noon Friday, Jeff said, or she would be fired.

Jeff said she told the mayor’s representatives that she wanted an amicable parting but needed the weekend to think through how to handle a resignation. Kramer declined, according to Jeff. “Ms. Kramer said the mayor believes in deadlines,” said Jeff. “I’ve never been treated this way in any professional experience I’ve ever had.”

Officials in the mayor’s office declined to comment on any conversations with Jeff.

Asked if she failed to forge strong relationships with council members, Jeff responded:

“I was direct, but that was not a surprise. I tried to be very clear about that in the interview process where the mayor initially considered me.”

Reaction among the City Council was mixed.

“This district’s relationship with the Department of Transportation is never good in the best of times and this isn’t the best of times,” said Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents parts of Los Angeles’ Westside and who is a firm ally of Villaraigosa’s.

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel upbraided Jeff during a council meeting earlier this year for not having moved fast enough to install more left-turn signals in the city. Greuel also chairs the council’s transportation committee, where at times she showed frustration with the pace of work by the transportation agency.

But Greuel would not say directly that she believed Jeff should be fired.

“She brought a wealth of experience with the federal and state government that we hadn’t had before,” said Greuel, who had supported Jeff’s hiring. “For me, the bottom line is we can’t miss a step no matter who the general manager of transportation is.”

Councilman Bernard C. Parks praised Jeff’s performance. “Our staff believes that she has done miracles for the district,” Parks said.

Councilwoman Jan Perry suggested that perhaps Jeff was a victim of her outspokenness. “I’ve always found her to be direct and highly competent,” Perry said.

“Some may perceive her as abrupt in the way that she tells people, at times, things they don’t want to hear.”

Jeff and her replacement, Robinson, are both African American. Robinson, who has worked for the city since 1983 in various roles, served as an assistant general manager in the transportation department in 2001 and 2003 and for three months in 2002 was the interim chief of the agency.

“Aren’t we just playing a zero-sum game when we promote one African American woman because we removed another?” asked Perry, who is also African American.

Villaraigosa has seen six high-ranking black officials leave in two years -- including two whom he fired and two who were essentially pushed out.

The mayor has also hired six black general managers.

In at least two cases, the announcements occurred as the mayor was dealing with racially sensitive issues. In December, Villaraigosa hired the city’s first African American fire chief, Douglas Barry, within days of black leaders protesting his veto of a $2.7-million legal settlement for Tennie Pierce, an African American firefighter who sued the city alleging racial harassment because his colleagues fed him a spaghetti dinner laced with dog food.

And last week, on the same day he agreed to give Pierce a $1.5-million settlement, Villaraigosa held a news conference announcing the hiring of James Featherstone, a black veteran firefighter who will head the city’s emergency preparedness department.

Villaraigosa hired Featherstone to replace Ellis Stanley, another black general manager criticized privately by the mayor’s team. In 2006, the mayor replaced Clifford Graves, the African American general manager of the Community Development Department, with Richard Benbow, a manager at the Community Redevelopment Agency who is also black.

The mayor said race was not a factor in his hirings or firings.

“When you’re the mayor of Los Angeles you have the responsibility to ensure that you have the best leadership,” Villaraigosa said. “When I appoint an individual into a leadership position, I do so based on their abilities first and foremost. Their character. I can tell you this administration is the most diverse in L.A. history in every way.”