Tuesday, January 18, 2011

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Public Administration

Fed Up’ Streets Chief Bill Robertson Resigns: “It’s My Time”

CityWatch, Jan 18, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 5

The bumpy road through LA’s budget crisis just took a turn for the worse as William Robertson, Director of LA’s The Bureau of Street Services, tendered his resignation with the simple explanation “It’s my time.”

Robertson’s announcement is certain to fuel speculation that “He’s fed up with it all!” and he conceded “Yes, I am fed up with it all. But I was planning to leave last year and I stayed on to take my department through the reorganization. Now, it really is my time.”

I’ve worked with Bill on three different levels and it’s from that perspective that I offer my opinion that his departure will be a tremendous loss to the City of LA within Public Works, within the larger LA community, and within City Hall.

The City of Los Angeles has the largest roadway network in the nation which in turn has the largest roadway network in the world. LA is a full generation behind schedule in roadway infrastructure investment resulting in a city that leads the nation in deteriorated road conditions. Research estimates that fully 64% of LA's streets are in poor condition, causing LA residents to pay an average of $746 per vehicle in repairs per year as the result of damages from potholes and road debris.

Against this backdrop of deterioration and disrepair, Robertson has demonstrated a knack for setting maximum performance standards while City Hall looks for the minimum acceptable performance. Some suggest that his military background is the foundation for a management style that is quick to size up assets, focus on the objective, collect data, measure performance, and deliver on his commitments.

LA’s budget cuts have crushed departmental commitments to the delivery of city services and the cost of raw product is rapidly escalating. Robertson responded by implementing a “Cold In-Place Recycling” strategy that resurfaces streets using a single huge piece of equipment that literally eats the street, recycling the materials, leaving a resurfaced street behind.

Less invasive to the community, 25 percent to 35 percent more efficient than conventional technologies, one would think that City Hall would have cloned Robertson and invested in more machines. But, apparently, it wasn’t the right time.

LA’s press conference solutions such as “Operation Pothole” and “Operation Smooth Ride” promote the fantasy that calls to 311 are something more than outrage measurements and schemes to limit city liability to only those potholes on record.

Robertson responded by implementing a long-term sophisticated data collection strategy that inventories all 69,000 pavement sections in the City of LA using an automated vehicle equipped with a computerized work station. It collects digital imagery and uses lasers to capture roadway roughness and rutting data and then the "pavement distress data" is used to prioritize the different layers of service, from emergency repairs to slurry seals to maintenance overlays to resurfacing to reconstruction.

One would think that City Hall would have cloned Robertson and invested in more machines. But, apparently, it wasn’t the right time.

LA’s neighborhood council system was created over a decade ago and department heads still grapple with the notion that the public wants to participate with a more responsive government, monitoring city services and offering advice on the budget. Robertson seized the opportunity to connect with the community, demonstrating a respect for the people of LA and a serious commitment to empowerment.

From educating the public with his “Professor Pothole” campaign to empowering communities with 87 local funding pools, his commitment to civic engagement is unrivaled.

One would think that City Hall would have cloned Robertson and supported his commitment to sharing power with the public. But, apparently, it wasn’t the right time.

LA’s bureaucratic system is Byzantine and insiders often seek refuge by deferring the public in order to avoid responsibility or liability. Robertson revealed his solution to this problem at a Silver Lake Neighborhood Council Transportation Committee meeting several years ago when he showed up with both senior and lower-level staff in tow. He explained “When I speak, they back me up. When they speak, I back them up. That’s a promise I can make because I lead by example and this is how they learn.”

One would think that City Hall would have cloned Robertson and reproduced his strategy for creating a department that moves quickly and with accountability. But, apparently, it wasn’t the right time.

Last year’s City Council budget hearings consisted of every single city department coming before the Budget Committee to defend their budget against the CAO’s recommended cuts. Robertson showed up with a plan for achieving the proposed budget cuts while still delivering city services and keeping his department intact.

One would think that City Hall would have cloned Robertson and put him in charge of departmental budget efficiencies and performance. But, apparently, it wasn’t the right time.

LA’s departments operate as little fiefdoms, fiercely guarding staffing and budgets, maintaining independence and autonomy, avoiding conflict and responsibility, and sometimes competing with others within the city family. Robertson has a track record for crossing jurisdictional lines in order to deliver on his commitment to doing what’s in the best interest of the city, even if it’s not his immediate departmental responsibility.

One would think that City Hall would have cloned Robertson and put him in charge of silo busting. But, apparently, it wasn’t the right time.

Bill Robertson is unique in his ability to balance politics with public administration, always avoiding the “either/or” solutions that are so prevalent in our community.

He has demonstrated a knack for navigating City Hall, for training strong leaders, and for working with the people of Los Angeles, not against them.

Through it all, he maintained his commitment to the Bureau of Street Services and to implementing innovations and technology, all while creating an organization that benefits those within, those in the community, and those at City Hall.

Acknowledging that LA’s budget crisis, impending service cuts, sale of assets, threats of layoffs and battle with the state over redevelopment funds might prompt people to speculate that he was fed up with it all, Robertson conceded “It’s true, I’m fed up.”

Bill Robertson was a rare city manager, one who did not need a City Charter to tell him that the people of Los Angeles were the priority.

He did not need an org chart to tell him that when trees are falling down after a storm and endangering life and property, professional tree trimmers should get busy trimming trees without regard to departmental turf.

He didn’t need a Chief Administrative Officer to tell him that in times of budget crisis it is imperative to plan for cuts while committing to delivering city services.

Bill will be missed and his departure is a great loss to the City of LA. He was an inspiration to me. Now, more than ever, we need more people like him in City Hall. It’s LA’s time!

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)


Anonymous said...

Bill Robertson is all that Stephen Box says he is and more. I had the privilege of working wih Bill on a local project. He and his staff were efficient, involved, knowledgeable, thoughtful and creative.

Shortly after the Sunland Tujunga NC was established, Bill came personally to our Land Use Committee meeting to discuss how we were going to handle the repairs in our sadly deteriating neighborhood roadways.

I attended one of his workshops on "How to handle LA's sidewalks or the lack of them! Once again, he proved how logical and practical he is.

I would be delighted to stump for him if he would run for Mayor.

Elaine Brown

wes robertson said...

Its interesting to read about my dad and what a good man he was . ive been looking up all his interviews