L.A.’s red tape makes new job czar see red


I found Austin Beutner, the former billionaire banker who is getting paid $1 a year to be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s new job czar, in his office on the 13th floor of City Hall on Tuesday.

I’m not particularly superstitious, but I don’t think I’d want to be a city official right now and have to hit the “13” button in the elevator.

When I got to his office, Beutner told me he is now in charge of 13 city departments.

There’s that number again. But after spending an hour with him, and hearing how he plans to shake up City Hall, I found myself wondering if 13 might be a lucky number for Los Angeles.

Beutner broke his neck in 2007 after flying off his bike on a trail in the Santa Monica Mountains. After months of recovery, and still not 50, he decided to retire from private business. He was about to take a job with the U.S. Treasury Department under President Obama, but changed his mind after a Breakfast of Champions meeting at the home of former Mayor Richard Riordan.

Eli Broad, Michael Milken and Steve Soboroff were there, the usual power elite suspects. The topic was the crummy local economy, and there was a consensus on the fix. As Beutner summed it up:

“City Hall has to lead.”

Before breakfast was over, Beutner had emerged as the man who could make that happen. Riordan had recently turned down a chance to sign on as Villaraigosa’s job development guy, because he wasn’t looking for a full-time gig, and he didn’t know if he’d have the authority to clear out the dead wood.

But Beutner was willing to step in. He negotiated with Villaraigosa for the independence he wanted and took the job, vowing to change the culture at City Hall and to promote economic growth.

Riordan is thrilled, and he’s predicting some much-needed clashes.

“He’s going to have to confront many, many special interest groups who have controlled the mayor of the city and council of the city -- developers, unions, you name it,” said Riordan. “And I think it is a smart move on the mayor’s part to let somebody who does not have political aspirations make the tough moves.”

You could call it politically smart, sure, the mayor standing clear of the dirty work he wants done, including likely confrontations with city employee unions that have bankrolled his campaigns in the past.

Or you could ask yourself why he didn’t step up himself, long ago.

Regardless, Beutner is keen to jump in. He thinks City Hall stands oafishly in the way of economic growth, like some great gray sloth. It’s a place where city employees meet with each other rather than the people they serve, shuffling a deck of oppressive regulations. It’s impossible to open a doughnut shop in this town without submitting to endless rounds of bureaucratic torture, and yet big businesses like the billboard companies fork over enough campaign donations to call their own shots at City Hall.

In the real world, Beutner said, he’d get to work, look over a list of clients and ask:

“Let’s see what we can do to help them. It’s 180 degrees different from what this place has been about.”

Beutner said that culture goes back decades in Los Angeles.

New York has had ups and downs, he said, but it runs relatively smoothly, and you know who’s in charge.

Same for Chicago.

In L.A., Beutner said, things are OK when the economy is strong.

“The tide goes out, and you start to see the shoals.”

Agreed. But creating jobs when money is tight and we don’t even know if we’ve hit bottom is going to take a lot more than talk.

Beutner argued that instead of stunting growth, the city can lead the way, particularly if it gets the right kind of leadership at the Department of Water and Power, the airports and the port.

Does that mean we’ll soon see heads rolling in all those places? Or the gravy train going off the rails at the DWP? Employees there, represented by the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, just got raises despite a huge city budget deficit and the fact that DWP salaries were already off the charts.

Beutner was more interested in talking about the agency’s potential: It ought to be a national leader, he said, in developing clean-energy technology that is engineered and manufactured in L.A.

LAX should develop nearby property already owned by the city to entice national corporations to set up bases here, Beutner said, as Dulles did near Washington. And with LAX being the most popular destination airport in the U.S., Beutner thinks the city should do a much better job of hooking visitors up with cultural arts and commerce centers, enticing them to spend even more than the average of $4,000 to $5,000 per visit.

As for the port, Beutner said one of his first City Hall meetings was with representatives of a Chinese electric car company that’s thinking of manufacturing vehicles in L.A., among other places. If it happens, he said, the same green technology used to power cars could be put to other uses, like powering street lamps or enabling L.A. Unified schools to go solar. And all that would mean more jobs.

Beutner was not impressed, though, by the old-school way in which the meeting between the Chinese car company reps and city officials was conducted. It began, he said, with a dozen city officials laying “reams and reams and reams” of deadly planning and process explanations on the table. If the visitors were perplexed, Beutner could sympathize:

“I needed an English translation.”

As the Chinese reps laid out their desires, he said, there wasn’t much of a response at first from the city team. A couple of city employees looked like they were planning their retirement, but finally a few others snapped to life, one of them proposing the solar power idea for the schools.

In an upcoming follow-up meeting, Beutner said, the city has to lay out what makes L.A. unique, why it’s the best place in the world for the company to set up shop and what the city expects in return for helping to make it happen. To further entice the company, Beutner might promise that he’ll get Villaraigosa and an A-list celebrity to show up at the Academy Awards presentation in the company’s electric cars, a great promo for all the world to see.

It all sounds promising, but Beutner is trying to move mountains. Stay tuned, and we’ll see if the mayor gives him all the dynamite he needs.