Wendy Greuel: Count her in

Out of Wendy Greuel's City Hall office window, she can see the Triforium. It's a fitting vista for the city controller: a good civic idea gone expensively bad. The Triforium was meant to be a six-story Los Angeles landmark, a charming, rainbow-lighted public carillon. Instead, it became a dark, silent, million-dollar failure -- a symbol of public money spent with fine intent and lousy outcome.

Greuel's a Valley girl who interned for Mayor Tom Bradley before she took a stab at public office herself, winning a City Council seat and the sobriquet "the Pothole Queen." Now it's been a year and change since she was elected controller. Her opponents noted that in one campaign ad, she was critical of a program she'd voted for. Since she won, she's taken to the bully pulpit of the office. She doesn't so much care how you spell Greuel, as long as you know what she's done.

What's the difference between this job and the City Council?

I don't have to sit in City Council meetings! I can pick issues that are important -- not only the day-to-day activities [of the city] but the big picture. How do we make the city better, create more jobs, spend our money effectively? It's interesting because on the other side, I wondered what it felt like to be a city controller.

What is your relationship with the council now? Have you been bumped from anyone's Christmas card list?

I'm the same person, but there's definitely a different relationship. I'm coming out with things that sometimes criticize the mayor and council and the departments, but that's the job. One council member to remain nameless actually did send me an e-mail that said, "I've taken you off my Christmas list."

Is anyone actively hostile?

I wouldn't say actively hostile. [But] I'm the messenger they don't want to see. It's not an office where you make friends; it's an office where you're sometimes pulling the sheet off to say here's actually what's happening.

Is the job proactive or reactive?

We try to be proactive. People think this office is about audits. That's a small but important part of my job; [it] gets the most attention and publicity. But we do all the financial reporting for the city; we do payroll and vendor payments; we look at cash flow.

What's the biggest change in the controller's job over the last 10 years or so?

The change in the charter. The [1999] charter changes allowed for performing audits [so] you could look at how the city is doing -- from DNA rape kits [to] whether the gang-reduction program is working [to] oversight of neighborhood councils.

I want to be known as the city controller who not only puts out great audits but also sees them implemented. That's the frustrating part. We are looking at ways we can hold the departments and the mayor and council accountable for the recommendations that come through our office. People said, "What kind of controller is she going to be?" [The defining moment] was in my first three or four days -- the Michael Jackson funeral and Lunchgate.

That's what you call the costly lunches that were brought down from Wrightwood for the police officers working the Jackson funeral.

We looked at [the bill] and said, "Wow." We should be providing lunches to our first responders for the day, but we shouldn't have to pay $14 for a box lunch and [shouldn't] get them from a business outside the city and county of Los Angeles. That's not pro-business in Los Angeles. Many cops said to me, "That lunch wasn't very good." We called Subway and they said it would cost $6.75 [for] this kind of lunch.

What do voters misunderstand about the budget?

I guess that a majority of the budget -- over 60% -- is spent on public safety. So there isn't as much room to maneuver as you would like.

And people don't understand how we get our tax dollars. We get a huge amount from property tax but [also from] the transient occupancy [hotel room] tax, the documentary transfer tax [charged to record property sales], and business tax and sales tax. There should be more transparency and understanding [about] where we get our dollars.

People tell pollsters they believe half of any government budget is waste, fraud and abuse. That clearly isn't so. How do you remedy waste, fraud and abuse but disabuse people of that wrong notion?

It is a difficult message to send. We have a waste, fraud and abuse unit -- a very small unit of two, unfortunately. People said to me, these are tough times to be city controller, and I said, it's the perfect time to look at changing how the city does things. There are GPS systems in our DOT [Department of Transportation] vehicles, and [after] a whistle-blower called, we found we could have purchased them for a dollar in 2006. We would have saved close to a million dollars. And when programs are being cut and people are being laid off, every hundred thousand, every million dollars does make a difference. It's balancing between thinking [that] just getting waste, fraud and abuse will solve the problem to it's a part of the problem that we should address.

Do your auditors get resistance from city officials who say, "You don't know how it works here"?

All the time. Some people believe we've already determined the outcome. That's not accurate. We let the departments know we're coming. We take their input. One thing I have done is ask the department [chiefs] to physically stand with me when I have the press conference on the audit I'm releasing. I have not had one general manager refuse to do that. It is difficult, standing next to someone saying, "Here's the things you did wrong" or, "Here's some that you did right and some that you did wrong." But [that way] you're going to get them to buy in to your recommendations.

You've been around City Hall since you were an intern with Mayor Bradley. How have people's attitudes toward government changed?

Look at the national elections; government and people's perception of it is probably at an all-time low. During the Bradley years we had tough times, but there was a [sense of] "We're in this together, let's all deal with this problem." I don't get that same sense anymore. We have to give Los Angeles confidence that government can actually help, and in a way that's business-friendly and provides the services.

You've done some high-profile and controversial audits of the city's red-light camera system, finding that it costs more to enforce than it nets, and of the DWP's claim that it couldn't pay the city what it had pledged without a rate hike. What got the biggest response?

Probably the DWP, because there is a mistrust. People don't trust the DWP, and they have to rebuild that confidence, that they're providing a service and doing it in a cost-efficient way.

The GAO is Congress' auditor, but it's more of an anonymous acronym. Does putting one elected official's face on the audit office make a difference?

Oh, definitely. I worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development [in Washington] and we had an inspector general. People never knew who it was. They'd come out with a report and there was no face attached to it. It's important for this position to be visible and to be an advocate so people understand there's someone looking out for them.

Doesn't that also leave you open to accusations that you're just seeking the spotlight and a run at a higher office?

Whenever you're an elected official, people [ask], "What are you doing next?" I think the test is the audits that we do. I've always said the dream job is being mayor of the city of Los Angeles, and of course [I am] looking at that, but I think it is important to focus on the job you're elected to do. Being mayor is probably the most rewarding and toughest job. What you do impacts [people's] lives every day, and that's exciting. That's why I like local politics. That's why I worked for Mayor Bradley.

What do you make of The Times' stories about financial abuses in the city of Bell?

I think that what happened in Bell will forever change local government. It has put everyone on notice that no one is above the law, that the money that is spent is taxpayer dollars. We were one of the first major cities in the state to put on our website all of the major positions in the city and what they were paid.

Did you get hate mail from city workers?

I did get some, but these are public dollars. If you don't like [working] in the city of Los Angeles and people knowing what the salaries are, then you shouldn't be an employee of the city. [Greuel's salary is $196,667.]

Is being the city's watchdog harder, or easier, for a woman?

I think everyone asked, will a woman be tough enough? [Women] sometimes do [things] in a different way, with consensus. I try to have that balance -- tough but civil.

My mom broke a lot of barriers. [She] owned a bed and breakfast in her small town in Illinois -- two homes. About a month before she died, she said the reason was that her father, my grandfather, was a coal miner, and she was from the wrong side of the tracks. There were these two beautiful homes [in town]. She knocked on their door one Halloween and they slammed the door in her face. They said, 'We don't give to your kind.' And she vowed at that age that she would own those homes. And she did. For me she was an inspiration that you can be a good mom and have a career.

I went to an event where someone asked, "Why don't you go home and be a real mom to your child?" I kept that green piece of paper [with the question on it]. People still ask those questions. [In] the history of the city, I'm only the third woman to have a child while in office. That's really unbelievable. And we're down to two women on the City Council. We had five.

I checked our records and The Times has misspelled your name often. How many wrong variants are there?

Many. People said when I got engaged to Dean [Schramm], is she going to change her name? Dean said, "We just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting everyone to know the name Greuel -- we're not changing it." I was pleased he said that.

patt.morrison@latimes.com This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is at latimes.com/pattasks.

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