Kevin James, once a political outsider, now defends City Hall turf
By Emily Alpert-Reyes
Stumping for votes as a mayoral candidate last year, Kevin James forged a reputation as a City Hall outsider sharply critical of what he saw as L.A.’s bumbling bureaucracy.
But now, as the head of its powerful Board of Public Works, the former conservative talk-radio host is filling a new and unexpected role: defender of one of its most criticized agencies, the Bureau of Street Services.
After a bruising audit of the bureau by City Controller Ron Galperin, James has argued that the way Galperin unveiled the audit last week gave Angelenos an “unfair” impression of what the bureau is doing.
“They think that the bureau is mismanaging money,” James said. “And the bureau is not.”
In recent days, James has outlined his objections before community groups, on talk radio and in an interview with The Times — to the irritation of some previous supporters.
“Kevin has joined the system,” said Ron Kaye, former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s distressing to see someone who knows better buying into the idea that we have to protect the system from reform.”
James did not respond to questions Friday about the criticism.
He landed in the public works post after placing third in the mayor’s primary and endorsing the eventual winner, Eric Garcetti. Because James made the “infrastructure crisis” facing L.A. a key part of his campaign, Garcetti appointed him to the nearly $140,000-a-year position overseeing city services including street repair, trash collection and sewer maintenance.
In an earlier interview, James said he took the job in part because of his deep concerns about city streets. But he argued that the publicity campaign surrounding the recent audit failed to include key information that would have softened the criticism of Street Services. In some cases, he argued, Street Services ended up being blamed for decisions outside its control.
The report concluded that the agency failed to collect or spend hundreds of millions of dollars, kept shoddy records and neglected to address the most heavily trafficked roads first, among other findings. It focused chiefly on the period from 2010 to 2013.
On the day that Galperin released the audit, Street Services Director Nazario Sauceda and James both declined to comment on specific findings, though the report itself said Street Services representatives disagreed with some points in a draft version.
But James did not stay silent for long. In several interviews and appearances, he argued against what Garcetti described as “one of the more troubling things” in the report: that because of a miscalculation, the bureau had failed to collect up to $190 million in fees from utilities and other companies that have cut into city streets since 1998. The audit said the fee was meant to recover the costs of such damages.
James said the fee was not supposed to ensure “full cost recovery,” as the audit stated, but rather give companies an incentive to avoid slicing up pavement. If the city wants to pursue more money through the fees, he said, that decision must be made by the City Council.
“Putting the fault and the burden on the bureau is inaccurate,” James said, adding: “This is not anything it can change.”
The report also stated that $21 million earmarked for street repairs went unspent and was returned to funding sources between 2010 and 2013. James said city budget officials ordered that some of the money be diverted to cover other city costs. Other funds, he said, were never supposed to be spent on fixing pavement.
About $5.6 million in unspent funds transferred from the streets agency still went toward operations that support pavement preservation, such as asphalt testing, but that nuance was lost when Galperin announced his findings, James said. He also challenged how several other issues were presented to the public, including findings about asphalt costs and labor use.
Galperin declined to be interviewed Thursday and Friday. His spokesman, Lowell Goodman, disputed the arguments raised by James and said the controller stood “100%” behind the report and its rollout.
“It’s not clear to me why Commissioner James is choosing to defend the status quo, especially since our audit seems to endorse Mayor Garcetti’s back-to-basics agenda,” he said.
Goodman pointed to the original ordinance that created the street-cutting fees, which stated it was “imposed to recover the actual cost to the city” of resurfacing and reconstruction. Though city lawmakers have the power to alter the fees, the bureau is responsible for calculating costs and informing the council, Goodman added. And he argued that unused money would be moved into other city funds only if it remained unencumbered late in the budget year.
When the report was released, Galperin told reporters that he was not trying to “damn the department or the city,” but the findings nonetheless spurred fresh criticism of Street Services. Councilman Joe Buscaino said that Angelenos’ general lack of trust in city spending was one reason lawmakers had tabled the idea of raising sales taxes to fund road repairs.
Paul Hatfield, a Valley Village resident who blogged about what James said at a community meeting, said he thought James was “pushing back too hard” against the audit’s findings.
“I think it’ll be easier for him to get things done if he says, ‘OK, Ron, I’m your partner,'” Hatfield said.
But Mike Eveloff, president of the grass-roots group Fix the City, said he also has concerns about the accuracy of the $190-million figure. Alisa Rivera, a spokeswoman for SEIU Local 721, which represents many Street Services workers, said James had made “some good points.” Others argued that James should get credit for speaking up when he thought the agency wasn’t getting a fair shake.
“He wasn’t defending the status quo,” said Steve Afriat, a governmental relations consultant. “He was saying, ‘Listen, there are some facts that aren’t quite right.’
“Here was a guy who said, ‘The city is broken’ … And now he’s part of the city family.”