CityWatch, Aug 23, 2011
Vol 9 Issue 67
RETHINKING LA - Austin Beutner is a relative newcomer to LA’s political landscape but he has probably spent more time acting as Mayor than any of the other declared and potential candidates, having served as the de facto Mayor during Villaraigosa’s tour of distraction.
Beutner’s official title was First Deputy Mayor and Chief Executive for Economic and Business Policy, a role that paid $1 per year and came with the added responsibility of reinvigorating the Mayor’s office, if not the Mayor.
Operating just below political radar levels, Beutner has avoided the minefields of City Hall while collecting insider victories that balance out his candidate’s resume, creating just enough contradiction to maintain his status as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
As the Interim GM for the DWP, Beutner stated boldly that hiring insiders was what got LA into trouble, that it was time to go national and to hire an industry professional, which he did when he hired Ron Nichols.
But when it came time to hire a GM for the Department of Planning, Beutner saw no need to look further than City Hall where Michael LoGrande stood in the wings, an insider who was coronated by Beutner and showered with accolades that included “He’ll speed things up!” Critics referred to this move as “out with the planner, in with the expeditor.”
Claiming kinship with LA’s small business operators, Beutner maintains a straight face as he points to his 30 years of experience in the private sector, first in Smith Barney’s Mergers and Acquisitions group, then as a partner in The Blackstone Group, and more recently as the co-founder of the investment banking firm Evercore Partners. His clients at Evercore included other “small businesses” such as General Motors and AT&T.
While his professional accomplishments are memorialized with significant personal wealth, it is his track record in City Hall that he holds up as evidence of his street cred. In addition to initiating a three-year business-tax holiday for firms that move to LA, Beutner makes much of his ability to tackle bureaucracy, pointing to his success in cutting in half the time it takes to permit a restaurant.
This claim to both ends of the economic spectrum, from macro to micro, is tempered by reality, one that sees LA’s practical unemployment hover in the high teens while the cafe in my neighborhood gets cited for having outdoor tables. Not because they block the public right-of-way or because they violate some ADA standard, but because the restaurant owner can’t afford the city permit.
It’s here that Beutner pushes back, pointing out that while he accomplished a great deal in his time on the inside of City Hall as a change agent, his short term on the inside was no match for a generation of bad practice and a culture of regulation at the expense of the people.
When pushed on the topic of Transportation, Beutner falls back when confronted with Complete Streets legislation, Bike Plan implementation, and other insider-speak, claiming that he looks at results not policy. “When I worked at City Hall, I sometimes commuted by bike from the Westside and the simple truth is, it doesn’t work.”
Beutner points at Santa Monica Boulevard and the bike lanes that end at the on-ramp to the 405 as evidence of a City that lacks a long term transportation strategy, not just for implementation of transportation innovations but for the missed opportunities to position transportation as economic drivers.
But as a bike commuter with an acute sensitivity to the streets, Beutner misses the opportunity to address the policies necessary to move LA forward, instead simply dismissing LA’s abysmal track record in supporting cyclists on the streets as “a terrible way to run a community.”
For a bike guy who actually refers to LA’s economy as a community of small business owners, Beutner gets macro quite quickly, positioning Metro’s sourcing of electric buses and the DWP’s sourcing of wind turbines as an opportunity for LA to take a leadership role in sustainable industries.
Tempering this big-picture claim to the sustainable high-road is the recent story of a small business operator in Hollywood who failed to secure permission from the city to install electric charging stations for his proposed electric car share program. At one point, a representative from the Mayor’s office suggested that the businessman simply go to work for ZipCar.
To be fair, Beutner was only in City Hall for a little over a year and the failings of City Hall and the Mayor are tough to pin on anybody other than the voting public who continues to tolerate mediocrity.
Beutner claims that his skill set was developed in the private sector, talents that his critics dismiss as more appropriate for the predatory environment of Wall Street than the delivery of City Services to Main Street. He responds by stating emphatically that “City Hall exists to serve the needs of the constituency!” and his ability to bandy insider details of City Hall covers for his shortcomings when discussing legislation and policy.
Pointing at the DWP’s antiquated COBOL-based billing system as evidence that any talk of a smart grid is just talk unless the City of LA starts at the foundation with a citywide commitment to integrated communication and management of information. He continues by pointing to the absurdity of LA’s departmental autonomy, resulting in systemic disconnect and a failure to standardize systems for the city as a whole.
When it comes to neighborhood councils, Beutner is diplomatic, saying “They can and should play a vital role in our government. It’s time to take stock and to see what would improve the system.” While this is hardly a vote of endorsement, he gets credit from local community leaders for engaging them in the creation of a Rate Payers Advocate committee where they found him “articulate, intelligent and willing to consider innovative solutions.”
He also proved to be diplomatic, maintaining peace with the IBEW’s Brian D’Arcy, a move that may have avoided a Pyrrhic battle but one that also failed to demonstrate his hand-to-hand skills as a political “change agent” capable of reforming City Hall.
Again, to be fair, Beutner had a boss when he served at City Hall, and while he claims that it is the role of City Hall’s leadership to ask the people of LA “How can I help?” the reality is this, the Mayor has bosses too. The question is, if elected who will Beutner serve?
As a cyclist who rides with Velo la Grange and who claims street cred as a bike commuter, Beutner’s time in the saddle has failed to resonate in a loyalty to his fellow wheelmen or in any support for last year’s CicLAvia. Demonstrating the continued dichotomy of his candidacy, Beutner’s claim to fame as a rainmaker in LA includes bringing a Chrysler dealership to downtown and a BMW dealership (also a campaign contributor) to town and a partnership with the Felix auto dealership that provides LA Trade Tech students with paid internships. So much for his talk of sustainable transportation and a shift from an automobile-centric bias.
Austin Beutner attributes his journey from the private sector to his current role in public service to his experience after sustaining a serious injury while riding a bike. As he lay in the trauma ward, he contemplated his epitaph and decided he didn’t want it to say “This guy made a lot of money and had a lot of success on Wall Street.” Beutner decided then that he had something to give and he changed his course, heading to City Hall and now campaigning as a candidate for Mayor.
Herein lies the rub. Can Beutner relate to the people of LA?
Los Angeles is filled with average people who, if they found themselves in similar circumstances and woke up in a trauma ward, wouldn’t spend much time contemplating the meaning of life but would instead be focused on financial pressures. One of the most common causes of bankruptcy is the crushing burden of medical bills and one of the most significant challenges to public health is the expense of medical care.
Austin Beutner has demonstrated that he gets the machinations of City Hall, that he recognizes the deceptions of the budget alchemists, that he understands the need for strong leadership, that he knows the local economy is depressed, that unemployment is unacceptably high, and that he is a change agent of incredible optimism.
His challenge is that he needs to demonstrate to the people of Los Angeles that he understands them, that they are the bosses, that they are the reason for City Hall, and that he will be serving them if elected as Mayor of Los Angeles.
(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net.)