One of my least favorite expressions is “kick the can down the road.”
I dislike it almost as much as “six of one, a half-dozen of the other.” I only utter that one in conversations with my daughter when I want to annoy her. She detests the saying as much as I do.
It is not as if these metaphors lack substance; it’s just that they have been so overused that their impact has become diluted. Fortunately, the latter of the two is rarely used now, but the other rings in my ears like an empty can rolling down a staircase – whether it was kicked or not.
Almost all politicians, candidates, journalists and activists make “kick the can” their mantra when discussing local, state or federal budgets.
It came as no surprise, then, when City Controller Wendy Greuel characterized the mayor’s proposed budget as kicking the can down the road. What is really sad is that her statement represents the extent of her efforts to publicize just how serious the problem is.
Greuel’s role in dealing with the city’s fiscal crisis has been as ineffective as the metaphor has become. What’s more, she helped create the “can” in the first place!
While serving as a member of the city’s finance and budget committee, she never once considered applying the brakes to the growth in spending even after the real estate bubble burst, much less propose cuts.
One of her last votes as a council member was in favor of the Early Retirement Incentive Program, which offered generous payouts for employees to retire early (by the way, the city will be borrowing to keep those inflated promises). She characterized the program as the “most humane … way” to deal with staff reductions. If only she had been humane to the taxpayers by supporting outright layoffs without the bonuses, but we have always been low in the pecking order at City Hall.
As City Controller, she has avoided the deficit at almost every turn. As the official responsible for financial oversight, she has failed to inform the public about the consequences of the city’s fiscal negligence. Performance audits are no substitute for sound advice on controlling spending in a weak economy, especially when most of those audits sit on the shelf in council chambers. Greuel doesn’t even make a big deal about that, but why would she want to upset potential allies in her run for mayor?
Greuel’s one attempt at warning the public about the depth of the financial crisis turned out to be a “deer in the headlights” appearance on the Fox Business Report last year (OK, I just used a too often cited expression). She offered no substantive plans for dealing with the city’s budget crisis and avoided taking a stand on meaningful pension reform.
But that was not the worst of it.
She waited until less than two months before the city would go broke before sounding a public warning!
Los Angeles is a $6 billion operation, not the typical household budget where you might warn your spouse or significant other that paying next month’s Macy’s bill is going to be a stretch. You would assume the controller would be on top of the projected cash flow many months in advance and make it job one to keep the public engaged,not to mention pressuring other officials to take it seriously, even if it means casting them in a negative light.
That’s not Greuel’s style. She shies from confrontation because her own political career is more important than the fiduciary duties that come with the office.
The field for mayor is growing as expected. Austin Beutner, Jan Perry and Kevin James are committed candidates, with others sure to follow. Greuel has filed but has stopped short of making a formal announcement. I hope she does run because she would, in all likelihood, lose. It would be the end of her career as an elected official in the city, a milestone that could represent her most worthwhile contribution to good government.