This one simple trick can save L.A. taxpayers time and money

This one simple trick can save L.A. taxpayers time and money
Dark clouds hang behind Los Angeles City Hall on June 30, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

It's the kind of thing that winds up in late-night comedy monologues:

The city of Los Angeles paid Wells Fargo Bank more than a half-million dollars to print checks … that the city was already printing itself.


Of  course the city controller is trying to get the money back, but the incident is another "I told you so" for skeptical taxpayers who are already convinced of the befuddled inefficiencies of bureaucracy.

Those jokes are infuriating to government people who are already getting things done efficiently, or who are trying to change procedures to make them efficient.

I would say Rick Cole is of both minds. He's leaving his post as L.A.'s deputy mayor to become Santa Monica's city manager.

When we talked for my recent "Patt Morrison Asks" column, he described an illuminating "for instance" of one of those irksome civic inefficiencies solved by "not spending a dime."

This year, the city is on target to repair 2,400 miles of pavement -- an all-time record, he says, 10% more than the year before.

Here's the joke part: It used to take four city departments to pave a street. Cole asked them all whether they could deliver more pavement by being more efficient.

"All four said, 'Absolutely not — we are stretched to the limit, we've been in crisis for six years, so you have to give us more funding or more staff, which is more money. But that department … ' " It was the other guys, in those other parts of City Hall, who were holding things up.

The problem, as Cole described it, wasn't that "other" department; it was simple coordination.

Street services would show up at 8 a.m. to start a paving job. There are already temporary "no parking" signs posted so work can begin, but inevitably, someone's still parked and that's keeping the crew from starting work.

And people who drive by see only a city crew standing there doing nothing. In reality, the crew is waiting for the Department of Transportation -- which figured its job was done once it had posted the "no parking" signs -- to come tow the car away.

Light bulb: If the DOT as a matter of course had a tow truck at a paving site at 7:45 a.m., the paving guys could indeed start laying asphalt at 8 a.m. "It wasn't that DOT was doing something wrong," Cole said. "They have other things to do besides worry about paving streets."

Cole said the mayor's office created a group to solve left-hand/right-hand coordination problems like this. And it introduced a Compstat-style data reporting system for every city department, to find out what's being done and what is not, as a starting point to figure out what to fix and how.

That's a start, but can the city keep it up? Or just backslide into comedy material?

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes