They say anyone can be replaced, but it will be most difficult for the city of Los Angeles to fill the job of Miguel A. Santana, the city administrative officer who accomplished the impossible task of taming a stubborn bureaucracy and egotistic elected officials.
Santana quit to head the Los Angeles County Fair Assn., which runs the county fair and other enterprises on the fairgrounds in Pomona. If you think Los Angeles city finances were a mess when Santana became the city’s chief fiscal officer seven years ago, Google L.A. County Fair and read about its toxic combination of bad administration and high administrative salaries.
He was appointed to his job by then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He had been a top aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. At city hall, he guided Villaraigosa, the city council and the bureaucracy through the tough steps that helped sharply reduce a $485 million budget deficit.
In addition to being in charge of the budget, he also supervises city departments. Rather than being a quiet numbers guy, Santana has been an activist, not content with old hidebound practices. As Jon Regardie wrote in the Downtown News, “he redefined the CAO’s job, regularly inserting himself into matters of public importance, with reports on issues such as the city’s worsening homelessness crisis.”
That’s when I got to know Santana. I was writing about homelessness and could make no sense of the maze of city and county agencies trying vainly to deal with the growing number on the streets.
I interviewed him in his office. He saw homelessness in human terms.
“Homelessness is a problem that involves thousands of people and requires a massive response, but it’s really about one person at a time,” he said. And at the heart of it was finding housing for the homeless and making treatment available with those afflicted with substance abuse and mental illness.
He knew the players in the county hall of administration and city hall from working in both places, He constantly brought them together in phone calls and meetings, making sure everybody got credit for their hard work. He took charge in a way that offended no one, and made the participants feel good about their efforts. He told me, “for the longest time, our homeless strategy has been one looking at the other and saying ‘you’re in charge. And at the end of the day, nobody was really in charge.”
County and city officials began cooperating in an unprecedented way. Their attitude was credited with overwhelming voter approval of the city bond measure HHH on the November ballot, raising $1.2 billion for housing for the homeless, with county-run treatment facilities readily available. Now the city must replace this unsung hero.