Austin Beutner is probably doomed in his new high-profile task to make the city of Los Angeles business friendly.
For one thing, he’s got only three years before Antonio Villaraigosa is termed out as mayor and Beutner will likely lose his position. Three years? That’s barely enough time to get paddling in the molasses stream that is Los Angeles city government.
(By the way, why would Villaraigosa wait nearly five years into his mayoralty before he finally appointed someone to be a jobs czar? Does that tell you this new position is truly important for Villaraigosa, or is it just the usual window-dressing political answer to the uncomfortable question about what he plans to do to combat L.A.’s 13 percent unemployment rate?)
There’s another problem. Villaraigosa tagged Beutner with the responsibility for 13 city departments – everything from the airport to the Department of Water and Power. What’s that about? I mean, Beutner’s ostensible task – to create net new jobs for Los Angeles – is one that’s fundamentally centered on policy, which means taxes and regulations and such. That’s a City Council-oriented job, not a job concerned with the operations of a collection of departments.
To his credit, Beutner has said his job is not to run the departments or to get bogged down with the details of their problems. But let me ask, what department head wouldn’t get sign-off from the boss on any sizable decision? And the moment Beutner says, “OK, let’s have a meeting about that,” is the moment he takes his first step into the bog.
But there’s even a bigger problem – a much bigger one. It’s the city’s culture.
Face it. This is a city government and administration that’s more clueless than Alicia Silverstone when it comes to understanding business. They often seem baffled by how business is supposed to work.
Take, for example, the page one centerpiece story in last week’s issue of the Business Journal. It was about how popular food trucks apparently are starting to put some restaurants out of business. Of course, this is the usual, if a bit untidy, result of healthy competition: The new and improved chase out the old or the weak. But that normal, Darwinian business process seemed shocking to City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who is using the power of city government to shoo away the food trucks to help the restaurants. He told the Business Journal that, essentially, he didn’t think “this new wave of entrepreneurialism is something that people want to see.”
Yep, that’s the culture that Beutner is up against. City councilmen don’t want to see any of those new waves of entrepreneurialism here. This is Los Angeles.
You want more? Well, consider that just last week the city’s Harbor Commission voted to boost the payments it will make to a high-dollar lobbying firm. It’s an involved issue, but it basically means more taxpayer money will be spent in an effort to kill off the many small trucking firms that serve the Port of Los Angeles, all so that unions can have an easier time organizing at the fewer, bigger firms that remain.
Remember, this business-killing vote was made last week, after Beutner was hired to make Los Angeles business friendly.
I started off this column saying that he’s probably doomed in carrying out his task. I didn’t say he lacked the intelligence, drive or savvy to be successful. I’ve not met Beutner, but given his impressive record of accomplishment, I’m sure he could be successful. If only he had more than three years. If only he weren’t tied down by all those city departments. If only the task – changing the culture of a big operation – wasn’t the most overwhelming business challenge a top manager can face.
Since there’s so much going against him, I don’t see how he can be successful. I don’t see how any single mortal could.
But, what the heck. I’ll root for him. I hope he proves me absolutely wrong. These words of mine I’d gladly eat.
Charles Crumpley is the Editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal. Read more from him at Fox & Hounds Daily.