A My Daily Find exclusive with City Controller Wendy Greuel

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[Editor’s Note: Reporter Erika Oblea sat down with City Controller Wendy Greuel in her City Hall office on July 23, 2009 for this exclusive interview for MY DAILY FIND.]

A true native of the San Fernando Valley, Wendy Greuel took office as City Controller on July 1 and  is only the second woman in Los Angeles history to hold a citywide office. She  represented Council District 2 in the Los Angeles City Council since 2002, and also served as President Pro Tempore of the Los Angeles City Council and as Chair of the City’s Transportation Committee.  A special election for her council seat will be held on September 22.

In this interview, Greuel talks about her plans to involve the Valley in her now citywide job as controller and the role she believes the Valley has played for the city and her political decisions. She also comments on how growing up in the Valley and having a family business influenced  her.

City Controller Wendy Greuel at work in her City Hall office in downtown Los Angeles.  Photo by Erika Oblea.

City Controller Wendy Greuel at work in her City Hall office in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Erika Oblea.

Q: How do you plan to still take into account the Valley in your now citywide job?

A: I’ve always talked about the Valley’s fair share- making sure that we not forget the fact that 40 percent of the voting population is in the Valley. As a resident of the Valley and having a child in a school in the San Fernando Valley, I’m going to continue to look that money is spent effectively and wisely across the city but most importantly because of succession issues that came up during succession to make sure that [the Valley] is not forgotten. As a citywide elected official who comes from the Valley and lives
in the Valley (…probably if I look back at all the citywide elected
officials I’m the only one that stayed from the Valley)…I think it helps
when you come from the Valley. It’s part of the community to continue to
represent them.  I can’t remember anybody – not Rick Tuttle not Jim Hahn not Antonio not Tom Bradley.

Q: You mentioned that 40 percent of the voting population comes from the Valley. Do you think that there is another role in terms of economically, socially, or culturally the Valley plays for the larger city of Los Angeles?

A: Most definitely.  The San Fernando Valley is a huge base of jobs for the city and that it is the also the port hole from which people come from – Calabasas, Simi Valley even way even north of there from some as far as Bakersfield and Lancaster – so people come into the Valley to access the city of Los Angeles. The SFV has a strong base of not only businesses but also community activism which is I think second to none as I look at representing the SFV.  People care about their communities, their neighborhoods.  People look at it as the suburb of the city of Los Angeles and I think it’s a great part of the city.

Q: I understand you worked in a private business before you got involved with politics. How will that experience affect or influence the decisions you make as City Controller?

A: My grandfather started a business called Frontier Building Supplies in the San Fernando Valley close to 65 years ago, and he called it Frontier because when he started it 65 years ago the Valley was a new frontier. It was a whole different place, and to see some of the pictures of constructing the building at that time, it was really amazing. I think what it taught me was a foundation. My father and grandfather worked seven days a week.  They understood what it meant to make payroll.  My father did the accounting, and he taught me the business. My brother and I own this business. My brother runs it.  It just, I think, gives you a perspective of how people are struggling to get through these tough economic times. I think it will remind me as I am making decisions here about how the economic decisions we make have an impact on those individuals who are just trying to struggle in a small business.

Q: I also understand that when you were involved with the business, you and your brother dealt with issues regarding city business taxes after your mother died. How will that experience also influence your decisions as City Controller especially in light of your delinquent taxpayer program?

A: When my mother passed away we wanted to make sure that we had paid taxes and one of the first things I said as an elected official was “now that I own this business with my brother, I wanted to make sure that we followed all the rules.” In fact we were. My mother had been doing that, but it was very difficult to get through the system when my brother and I had nothing to do it with it. Because of ethics, I have separation there, but my brother would call and say “Have we paid our taxes?” and he would wait for a phone call back and didn’t get a phone call back and I think what it exemplified to me was what the average individual has in trying to get through the bureaucracy of the city of Los Angeles, and so it continued to remind me on how important it is for Los Angeles to be more business-friendly and to be able to help those small to medium size businesses which are really the backbone of the city now. It’s no longer Fortune 500 companies.  It’s the people who have ten, twenty, thirty people as their employees that are making this economy as it is.

Q: In terms of the budget deficit and economic situation, where do you see Los Angeles going?

A: My comment has always been going back to the basics. Back to the basics of making sure that what is it that we are funding, making sure that we are going back to the charter, what are we responsible for.  I know that in my district I wanted to make sure that my streets are clean, my trash is picked up, there are enough police officers on the street, and that you have water and power at a reasonable rate.  All the other things we may or may not do. but we really want to make sure that we go back to the basics. As City Controller, I’m going to make sure that we look at auditing or look at what we’re spending money on and look at the basics and be able to say that the city of Los Angeles is doing what the people want us to do – that is to deliver services that they pay taxes for.

Q: How has growing up in the Valley influenced you?

A: I grew up in Granada Hills and went to Kennedy High School and you know I just had my thirtieth high school reunion and it seems just like yesterday.  Growing up in the Valley taught me that you should care about your community and your neighborhood, that no one is going to do everything for you, that you have to participate in that community.  It also taught me about the fact that the Valley is part of the larger city of L.A. and interning for Tom Bradley while I was in high school and college demonstrated to me that we’re not – we shouldn’t be – isolated and that we should see ourselves as helping everyone in the City of Los Angeles. But I think that the Valley gave me a great foundation and a good education where hard work and a good education is going to allow you to succeed in life and that has helped me and my family to be able to succeed.

Q: What do you see for the Valley in the future in terms of economically, socially, or culturally?

A: I think that the biggest challenge is making sure that we have smart planning that addresses the issue of traffic and housing because most of the people who are living outside the city of L.A. and the county live out there because that’s where they can afford to live but they drive into the city of Los Angeles and we get none of their tax base but we get all of their smog and all of their traffic. How do we get smart growth that limits traffic and the kinds of congestion that we see happen?  How do we keep the great part of the San Fernando Valley that I grew up in and that makes it feel like a community and at the same time not stop our economic future out there? So I think those are going to be the big challenges.

Q: What do you hope to see in the person who will replace your spot in the City Council?

A: The most important thing (and I’ve talked to many of the candidates)  is one — constituent services. We were complimented often by the fact that we returned phone calls and we tried to deal with people’s problems. So anyone who takes my job as city councilmember I’m going to make sure that they remain focused on that.  I think also the spot should include someone who is going to be pragmatic, who is going to work with the community, who is going to have transparency and involve the community in decisions.  [That person] sometimes must tell them what they may not want to hear but is the truth on how to go forward and to bring them to the table. And so I’m going to want somebody who is an activist Councilmember who will represent the area.

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.