Insurrection at LADOT

Pauline Chan smiles during a lighter moment while delivering testimony yesterday. To see the full demonstration, click on the picture and then on “public comment” below the video screen.

“The rank and file has lost confidence in our general manager,” thundered Mike Hunt, an LADOT engineer and “proud” SEIU Union Steward. “He doesn’t listen to us. He ridicules us every chance he gets. He puts the blame on us for doing our job, and implementing the policies he put forth for us.”

Hunt was the last of five LADOT  staffers to speak at City Council yesterday, rattling off a laundry list of complaints against the management of the Department of Transportation and specifically against General Manager Jaime De La Vega. Each speaker’s remarks were greeted with thunderous applause as the chamber was filled with LADOT staff, many of whom were wearing yellow safety vests.

While De La Vega has served as LADOT general manager under both Villaraigosa and Garcetti, the new administration has not announced whether or not he will be with the city in the long-term. Garcetti has neither asked for his resignation, announced he is staying, nor announced a timeline for when that decision will be made. De La Vega served as Villaraigosa’s Deputy Mayor for Transportation before being appointed General Manager of the LADOT.

Joining Hunt were Jay Kim, Pauline Chan, Scott Morril and Brian Gallagher.  Each of the speakers has worked at the department for well over a decade.

The two largest complaints voiced by the presenters were that morale is low and the department is understaffed. Low morale isn’t just a result of the staffing issue, but of a management team that doesn’t treat employees with respect the speakers argued. Senior staff, particularly De La Vega are dismissive and rude.

“When you couple low employee morale with staff shortages, it is not sustainable,” offered Kim, a senior engineer. “Employee morale at LADOT is at an all-time low.

A statement (the full statement is available here) on yesterday’s hearing from an LADOT spokesperson defended the agency’s hiring practice and noted that the budget for staff is set by the City Council and Mayor, not the department general manager.

“Given budgetary constraints and attrition, not every position – senior engineer or otherwise – is filled at all times.  This has been explained directly to the union leadership.  Management has asked the union to work together to secure the necessary administrative approvals to fill various engineering positions. In addition, the department has taken administrative steps required under the managed hiring process and civil service to make this possible,” said the spokesperson.

Many of the complaints focused on the staff shortfall. Morral’s complaint that a shortage of younger staff would lead to the degradation of the city’s famous and expensive ATSAC system can be traced to a budget decision made outside of the Department’s purview. The same can be said for Gallagher’s complaint that a backlog at the district offices has led to 2,200 open requests waiting to be answered by eleven and a half assigned engineers.

 While it’s easy to look at complaints of understaffing and believe there’s been a misfire, the complaints about management intentionally undercutting and humiliating staff are harder to brush off.

“We have seen our staff placed in front of negative issues and outcomes in the public even when it is the result of ignoring staff recommendations,” continued Chan, a senior engineer at LADOT who works on pedestrian safety issues. Chan has twice been the hero of Streetsblog stories, for leading the city’s efforts on Safe Routes to Schools and getting a crosswalk installed at the dangerous intersection of Sunset and Vista Boulevards.

De La Vega, pictured here with Metro CEO Art Leahy, certainly doesn’t enjoy the anonymity he had when he worked directly for the Mayor. Photo: LA Streetsblog/Flickr

At the end of the demonstration, Council Member Mitch Englander, who chaired the meeting in Herb Wesson’s absence allowed City Council Transportation Committee Chair Mike Bonin to respond. Bonin was non-committal, stating public comment law forbids him from directly addressing points made in the testimony, but did promise both that the City Council heard the complaints and that he would do more investigation at LADOT field offices.

“I do want to acknowledge that you have been heard today,” said Bonin to applause from the audience. “Your voices have been brought into this chamber, and everyone in this horseshoe hears what you’ve been saying.”

So, what the heck is going on?

Before I offer any analysis, allow me a few caveats.

First, I have no inside knowledge of what is going on between De La Vega, senior staff, those protesting, and the “rank and file.” I know De La Vega somewhat in a professional setting and have found him to be competent, intelligent, and something of a visionary. Not a Janette Sadik-Khan, but certainly not a Rita Robinson or Gloria Jeff. Streetsblog did give De La Vega an award last year for the new bicycle and pedestrian focus of the department.

I’ve also met Chan and Kim several times, although it’s literally been years since I’ve interacted with them directly. Many people I respect also respect them.

On social media, supporters of LADOT’s new policies promoting safer cycling and pedestrian infrastructure  have openly wondered if yesterday’s demonstration had something to do with the “old” LADOT feeling pushed aside and out of place. This theory gained traction after one former LADOT staffer recounted a story where De La Vega told a traffic engineer who was protesting that a bike lane could reduce vehicle throughput that this is how the city would now do business…putting moving people ahead of moving cars.

However, the appearance of Chan, who was long considered one of the brightest lights during LADOT’s darker times could put lie to that theory. The same holds true, to somewhat of a lesser extent, for Kim.

There does seem to be common cause created between the white and blue collar employees at LADOT. It’s unlikely that many of the field crews have been belittled by De La Vega, even if we assume that the speakers were giving an accurate account of the internal workings at the Department. A more likely reason for their appearance would be that LADOT is creating a “bench” to help the department react to certain conditions or meet certain goals that they cannot meet under the current conditions. Such moves never sit well with organized labor, who (accurately) see benches taking away jobs and benefits from city staff.

From the LADOT Statement:

“Finally, the department has established a bench of engineering consulting and other professional services firms and contracts have been signed..The second is to provide the ability to complete work in the event the department has insufficient internal staff resources.  The department’s preference is to complete engineering work in-house and we have used overtime to meet workload demands to date.  All of these points have been discussed with union leadership on multiple occasions.”

Of course, unless you work at LADOT, know someone who works at LADOT, or care deeply about the city’s labor practices, you’re probably less concerned with how happy people are working there than you are results. From an efficiency stand point, the speakers made a compelling case that efficiency is down: less staff leads to longer delays in doing things. While senior management make staffing decisions, they don’t make budget decisions, that is made by the City Council and the Mayor.

As for employee morale, how much, or little, morale impacts the overall produce is harder to measure without first hand experience.

So what about the Livable Streets agenda that has advanced while De La Vega was general manager?

It’s hard to argue that from a policy standpoint that LADOT isn’t ahead of where it was when he took the reigns over two years ago. Bike lanes are being painted. Road diets are being installed. Continental Crosswalks are replacing “ladder” crosswalks. Parklets are being springing up in Downtown and Northeast Los Angeles. Heck, the “People St” website and program is an LADOT creation gifted to the city and the Garcetti administration.

How much of that comes from leadership at the top? Without being involved with each of those projects, it’s hard to know. If the pressure being brought by LADOT staff leads to De La Vega’s removal, then the search will be on for a replacement. The million dollar question is “will Garcetti replace him with someone more, or less, progressive?”

While advocates may salivate at the thought of Janette Sadik-Khan or one of her senior staffers, coming to L.A. when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office, there’s no guarantee that the city will end up with someone more progressive than who we have at the top spot now. Getting behind an LADOT staff coup could lead to a visionary taking over the top spot, or it could lead to something else.

One LADOT employee tweeted last night that “the previous general manager was held in higher esteem” than the current one. That may be true inside the department, but outside the LADOT was referred to as the “Department of No,” for its inability to think outside of any box not labeled “moving cars,” was pushing for speed limit increases across the city, and took half a decade to paint a couple of Sharrows even after the David Bohnett Foundation offered to foot the bill.

No matter what one thinks of De La Vega’s personal style, I think everyone can agree we don’t want to return to that era.