Ron Galperin, L.A.'s new city controller, wants to be right on the money

Ron Galperin, L.A.'s new city controller, wants to be right on the money
Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin wasn't given much chance of getting elected. But now here he is -- keeping a close eye on the city's finances. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Two opposing forces squared off last week in the latest round of a long-running battle over a $40-million mystery.

In one corner was one of the most powerful heavyweights in the history of local politics: Brian D'Arcy of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18.


On the other side was a wonkish, nerdy newcomer on the political scene: City Controller Ron Galperin.

And the pipsqueak knocked out the bully.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled that Galperin has every right to issue subpoenas and audit two nonprofit trusts under the joint control of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and D'Arcy, who has refused to comply with requests for more information on how $40 million of ratepayer money that went to the trusts was spent.

"This is a victory for ratepayers to bring transparency to the Department of Water and Power," Galperin said of the judge's ruling.

The nonprofits are supposed to be dedicated to safety and training. But as The Times' Jack Dolan has been pointing out since last year, neither IBEW nor the DWP seems able to explain in detail what the two trusts do or why they're even necessary given the millions DWP already spends annually on training and safety. D'Arcy has thumbed his nose at the media, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Galperin and anyone else who demanded an explanation.

I gave D'Arcy another chance to explain himself last week, and would have been happy to bring his favorite Jameson and Guinness. But my interview request went unanswered, and it's no fun drinking alone.

I did, however, enjoy my time lounging in Galperin's City Hall lair, even without the Guinness. And while it's not clear whether D'Arcy will appeal the court ruling or find new and more annoying ways to stall, Galperin does not intend to drop the pursuit.

He told me he wants to get his hands on "anything that relates to how the money was spent and how the trusts operate. Documents. Electronic documents ... we have a right to call in any of the trustees or the principals involved with those trusts."

A cynic might point out a motive other than the public interest on Galperin's part. In last year's elections for controller and mayor, D'Arcy's fundraising machine — Working Californians — backed Dennis Zine rather than Galperin and Wendy Greuel rather than Garcetti.

"Whoever he supported or didn't support would be irrelevant to me. I don't know the guy," Galperin said of D'Arcy.

The $40 million may all have been well-spent, Galperin said. But that doesn't mean D'Arcy can blow off DWP customers who deserve an accounting.

"This is not about going after IBEW or the DWP. It's about the simple concept of transparency… Everyone has a right to know how their tax and ratepayer dollars are being spent."

We can only hope that Galperin, an attorney, isn't kidding about transparency, and about independence in the name of the public interest. He did, after all, have campaign backing from labor giant SEIU, another powerful City Hall player.

But Councilman Bernard Parks thinks Galperin is less interested in making or keeping friends than in getting taxpayers the best return on their money. Parks said Galperin first came to his attention several years ago when he chaired the Los Angeles city Commission on Revenue Efficiency.


He recalled Galperin's finding that the city had "$100 million in surplus buildings, and was not moving those buildings for sale or other uses." And since being elected, said Parks, Galperin has stepped up production in the controller's office, which was last run by Greuel.

"What I've seen in nine months may have taken years in other eras," said Parks, who applauded the way Galperin has stormed the gates at the DWP as well as posting an online accounting of what the city does with its money.

Galperin is not a complete political novice. As a 20-year-old collegian he worked on a U.S. Senate subcommittee on government management, and while practicing law in Los Angeles, he served on the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council and ran unsuccessfully for a council seat. He said he got the bug to run for controller when he saw a comment from former Councilman Jack Weiss about there being only enough money to repave 175 miles of the city's thousands of miles of crumbling, potholed streets.

"That set me off on this sort of odyssey," said Galperin. "I started paying attention to the city budget and looking at financial documents… I was getting into council files."

And what did he find?

"There wasn't an easy way to look at where the money was going or where it was coming from or what results we were achieving."

Galperin wasn't given much chance of getting elected controller. His own polling said he'd lose.

But here he is.

On his first day on the job, he pulled into the garage and the attendant had a fax machine at her station.

He asked why.

She said city officials faxed parking permission to her for their guests.

Galperin, noting that modern communication has evolved, is getting rid of that fax and all the faxes in his office.

At his first power-point conference, a city employee pushed a gigantic projector into the room. Galperin pointed out that better technology was available for $179, or about the price of a light bulb in the projector.

And the city Office of Finance can expect to hear from Galperin soon. Assuming his city department was a retail sales operation, Finance sent him a $1,384.95 tax bill, threatening "further actions" if he doesn't pay.

Things are going to change, says Galperin.

Take note, Mr. D'Arcy.