Los Angeles City Hall's top budget analyst, who has succeeded in pushing an array of cost-cutting measures opposed by labor leaders, is becoming a lightning rod in the contest to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Union activists have been pressing top mayoral candidates to stake out positions on City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and his approach to balancing the budget, which has included employee layoffs and furloughs, cuts in basic services and reductions in pension benefits.
At a labor forum last week, the candidates were asked whether they would keep Santana, who reports to both the mayor and City Council. Only one of them, Councilwoman Jan Perry, said she would. Four others — former prosecutor Kevin James, tech company executive Emanuel Pleitez, City Councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Greuel — declined to say, according to a recording of the event provided to The Times.
James, a Republican running as a City Hall outsider, told the audience it was "too soon" to indicate what he would do. Greuel sidestepped the question, saying she would be accountable as mayor and not use a "good cop, bad cop" approach to budget decisions. Pleitez did not address the question at all.
Garcetti, who was council president when nearly 400 employees were laid off, told the gathering that he would require all of the city's department heads to reapply for their jobs. "Nobody … should assume they have a job at the start of my administration," he told audience members, who belonged to various locals of the Service Employees International Union.
Santana's only defender was Perry, who said the city's elected officials need someone willing to deliver news they don't want to hear. "I can't stand here and tell you, 'Oh yeah, on Day One I'm going to fire him' ... because I'm not going to lie to you," she told the group.
The SEIU is deferring an endorsement until a runoff campaign leading up to a May 21 election. But their members have made no secret of their dislike for Santana, who has been pushing to contract out key city operations now performed by city employees. "Labor relations and collective bargaining are very important issues" in the campaign, said Victor Gordo, an attorney with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions. "And Miguel happens to be in charge of both."
Since being appointed by Villaraigosa in 2009, Santana has recommended the elimination of thousands of jobs and the shift of key operations, such as ambulance billing, to private vendors. He and the mayor are trying to persuade lawmakers to turn the L.A. Zoo and the L.A. Convention Center over to private operators — moves opposed by city unions.
Alan Peshek, a city employee and SEIU member who participated in last week's candidate forum, said in a statement issued by the union that Santana is hurting the city by "always demanding cutbacks and layoffs."
"The next elected mayor should make wiser staffing choices," he added.
Santana said his job is to provide independent advice to the mayor and council. With the city facing a "financial tsunami" in the next two years, layoffs and other cost-saving measures must remain on the table, he said. "Those options won't necessarily make me, or whoever's in this job, popular," he said.
The focus on Santana is reminiscent of the 2001 mayoral race, when candidates were asked if they would keep then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, a target of the police officers union. Mayor James K. Hahn removed Parks a year later, prompting a political backlash.
Key differences exist between Santana and Parks, who is now a councilman and a prominent figure in the city's African American community. But an attempt to remove Santana could set off a City Hall political battle similar to one that erupted over Parks' removal as police chief 10 years ago.
Council President Herb Wesson said he would rally his colleagues to block any effort by the next mayor to oust Santana. "They will fight me tooth and nail," Wesson said.
The city administrative officer position was created to provide reliable information to the mayor and the council, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs. He noted that the city administrative officer can appeal to the City Council if the mayor tries to unseat him.
"If people are operating under the assumption that he automatically disappears just because a new mayor comes in, I think they might be wrong," he said.