A story line has developed during Mayor Eric Garcetti's first nine months on the job, and it goes something like this: In stark contrast to his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who often held multiple news conferences a day and launched big initiatives, Garcetti has taken such a low-profile, behind-the-scenes approach that people wonder what he'll have to show for his first year in office.
Though Garcetti hasn't avoided the limelight — he was on stage last week with former President Clinton, for instance — he often goes days without a public event, and he hasn't yet proposed a major program or policy change. In his first few months, Garcetti's two biggest announcements were his demand for tweaks to the new contract with Department of Water and Power employees and his unveiling of a website that will show how the city is doing at providing services such as emergency response and graffiti removal. Those aren't quite as exciting as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's effort to provide universal preschool or Villaraigosa's attempt to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District.
That's OK. Addressing the underlying issues that bedevil City Hall is a lot harder than launching a new program. If Garcetti has indeed used the last nine months to lay the groundwork for a city government overhaul, then it was time well spent. He'll elaborate on his "back-to-basics" policies during his State of the City speech Thursday night, but his first budget, due next week, will be the real test of Garcetti's priorities.
In the short term, how will the mayor close a projected $242-million shortfall with no layoffs while increasing, as promised, the numbers of potholes filled, trees trimmed and other core services delivered? Garcetti's office has introduced performance-based budgeting, which in theory means setting clear service goals, giving managers the freedom and money to meet those goals and cutting programs that don't support the goals or deliver results. It's part of his focus on improving metrics and customer service. Can he keep the City Council and public on board, particularly if their pet programs get cut?
Garcetti's bigger challenge, however, is the longer-term issues. The ancient computer systems and labor-intensive paper filing. The underfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities. The aging city buildings and infrastructure needs. The high business tax and the outdated community plans. These are problems that cripple the city and hinder economic development, but they're hard to fix, expensive and, frankly, they make for a boring news conference. How will Garcetti begin to address them in his first city budget, and more important, will he remain committed to the hard work of reforming City Hall even if it means remaining low profile for the foreseeable future?