The controller’s job is all about reviewing the way the city spends money. At the heart of that is uncovering the mishandling of public funds and putting City Hall on blast for such malfeasance.
What does L.A.'s controller do?
The controller’s job is all about reviewing the way the city spends money. At the heart of that is uncovering the mishandling of public funds and putting City Hall on blast for it.
The city controller oversees about 160 employees — a relatively small number compared to, for example, the city attorney’s office of 500 attorneys. The controller’s office manages payroll for city employees, audits city departments, and issues reports on how those departments are spending city funds. Their work is limited to the city of Los Angeles.
But make no mistake: this is not a routine bookkeeping role. Think of the city controller more as a watchdog. If you’re concerned about corruption in City Hall, this is a race you’ll want to pay close attention to.
What can they actually do? Controllers don’t have a lot of direct power; they can’t make laws or dictate how departments operate. But they can put a spotlight on powerful officials or agencies, and crank up the heat. Their reports scrutinize government programs and departments, call out financial waste and mismanagement, and recommend fixes — all of which can influence public perception and policies.
Current controller Ron Galperin has been in office since 2013 and is termed out. He’s currently running for state controller.
You might recognize their work from...
One high-profile example: In 2008, an audit by former L.A. Controller Laura Chick uncovered more than 7,000 untested DNA rape kits sitting in a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) lab freezer, some more than a decade old. The story became national news and mobilized advocacy groups to put intense pressure on the LAPD, mayor and City Council. That ongoing pressure contributed to a push for California to eventually pass a law in 2019 requiring that rape kits be tested within 120 days.
In short, if you’re interested in holding City Hall accountable, this is the office for doing it.
What’s on the agenda for the next term?
Controllers are expected to eventually audit every department in City Hall, and they have the authority to do so. But how they go about it and what they draw attention to is largely up to the officeholder, so individual candidates’ campaigns and statements might give you a clue as to their approach and priorities.
Some projects require annual audits from the controller’s office, such as Proposition HHH, the $1.2-billion bond measure voters passed in 2016 to build supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. Previous years’ audits found that the project was far behind schedule, costing more than anticipated, and projected to fall short of its goal of building 10,000 units. Expect more reports on this from the next controller in the years ahead.
The controller will also face pressure to expose corruption within city government, on the heels of a billing lawsuit scandal at the Department of Water and Power and the recent indictments of three city councilmembers over corruption charges.
Where do they go from here?
Serving as L.A.’s controller can position a person for higher, more powerful offices. Former controllers include James Hahn, who went on to become city attorney and then mayor of L.A., and Ira Reiner, who became city attorney and then L.A. County district attorney.
If you’re unsure what to consider as you decide who to vote for, here are some qualities that experts say are important for this role.
- A solid understanding of the job. A controller is not the same as a treasurer. It’s important for a candidate to understand exactly what this role entails, the potential power of the office, and responsibility to the community, says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State LA.
- “Do you know that a lot of times people are going to be really mad at you?” he says suggesting questions he would ask candidates. “And do you know that the voters would like you — in a professional, honest way — to shake things up when you need to? Because there aren't too many places in City Hall where that can be done.”
- Public communication skills. While a major part of the job is uncovering waste and mismanagement, educating the public about it is just as important. “It has to be somebody who knows how to think about evaluating programs in ways the public will understand,” Sonenshein says.
Experts we spoke to for this piece
Raphael Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Cal State LA
If any one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the June primary, they will win the office outright. Otherwise, the two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the November runoff.
There are six people running for L.A. city controller. (You'll see seven names on your ballot, but Rob Wilcox announced on May 19 that he was dropping out of the race.) District 5 City Councilmember Paul Koretz has some advantages, with a wide lead in fundraising and endorsements from established names in local and state government. But challengers David Vahedi, Kenneth Mejia, and Reid Lidow have drawn attention and support in the lead-up to the primary as well.
Here are basics on all the candidates’ backgrounds and stances on specific issues, sourced from their campaign websites, public statements, local news coverage and an April 10 debate hosted by the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates.
Chief Financial Officer
Clements, a Mar Vista resident, has a 25-year career in local city government under her belt. She’s the chief financial officer for the Department of Public Works, and previously was CFO for the Fire and Police Pensions Department and Fire Department. She says this experience has given her intricate knowledge of the city government’s workings and the forces that lead to corruption and budget deficits.
Top priorities: If elected, Clements said at the April 10 debate that she would first:
- Make sure the city’s new payroll system is implemented correctly. It will be in its final phase of implementation when the term begins
- Make sure City Hall does not approve labor agreements it can’t afford
- Find funding to invest in IT infrastructure upgrades for the city government
On how to reduce corruption in local government: Clements wants to focus on exposing quid pro quo deals and conflicts of interest within City Hall by lining up Ethics Commission data with related actions from City Council members. She says Council discretionary funding is a major concern: “We’re doling out millions of dollars, with no outcomes and a lot of no-bid sole-source contracts.” She also proposes looking at government expenditures over a longer period of time — 10, 15 or 20 years, rather than just year-to-year comparisons — to identify patterns of where taxpayer money is actually going.
On affordable housing and homelessness: Clements wants to find ways to expedite public-private partnerships and better utilize private funding to speed up affordable housing development. She also says the city must find ways to reuse existing buildings, rather than build new ones from scratch, when it comes to expanding housing for unhoused communities, calling the Proposition HHH model “unsustainable.” Under this spending, new housing is costing nearly $600,000 per unit, and only 1,042 units have been completed in six years.
On the L.A. Police Department budget: The LAPD has too much overhead, Clements says. Part of her audit plan would be to look for waste and scrutinize LAPD salaries to see how they compare to those of other city employees.
Endorsements: Southern California News Group (Daily News, Daily Breeze, SGV Tribune), National Women's Political Caucus. [Note: While L.A. Times editorial board endorsed Kenneth Mejia, it also said Clements stood out for her experience.)
Campaign finance: Contributions via L.A. Ethics Commission
Mayor's Executive Officer
Lidow, born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, most recently spent four years on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s staff, serving as his speechwriter, deputy press secretary and, most recently, executive officer. Prior to the mayor’s office, he worked under former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Brown’s role as UN Special Envoy for Global Education. Lidow says he sees the controller’s power not just as a watchdog to hold City Hall accountable, but also as a bridge between government, members of the public and other stakeholders in solving the city’s problems.
Top priorities: If elected, Lidow said at the April 10 debate he would first:
- Conduct an internal audit in the controller’s office itself to gauge its operations, efficiency and morale
- Launch an Office of Accountability and Transparency within the controller’s office to track the finances of city operations beyond yearly accounting of the budget
- Launch a Performance Management Unit that would serve as an in-house consultancy for city departments, offering guidance on operations without the pressure of an audit
On how to reduce corruption in local government: Audits should be predictable and regular, instead of being launched only after a spate of bad press, Lidow says. He also wants to utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning software to enhance auditors’ work and find larger trends in city spending.
On affordable housing and homelessness: Thoroughly investigating the cost-per-unit of housing development, down to each line item, and using machine learning to spot overruns can help spotlight misspending and cost-saving opportunities, Lidow says. He also says he would keep pressure on the government to find ways to cut red tape on development, and focus on putting city funds toward “high-quality, long-lasting” permanent supportive housing for unhoused communities.
On the L.A. Police Department budget: The LAPD would be one of his first audits, Lidow says, and he would make sure that regular audits take place every two years to follow up on recommendations.
Los Angeles City Councilmember
Koretz represents District 5 on the L.A. City Council (which includes communities on the Westside and southern and central San Fernando Valley); his term ends this year. He’s had a long career in local and state government – he served 12 years on the L.A. council, six years in the California Assembly, and 12 years on the West Hollywood City Council. He sat on L.A.’s Budget and Finance Committee and the Audits and Government Efficiency Committee, experiences that he says will bring value to the controller’s role.
Koretz has the most public name recognition and the widest lead in fundraising, but he’s also been the target of complaints for campaign ethics violations such as having an LADWP commissioner host a fundraiser for him and sending campaign emails through the Neighborhood Council roster.
Top priorities: If elected, Koretz said at the April 10 debate he would first:
- Make sure the city’s new payroll system is functioning properly, and hire a quality assurance consultant to help avoid costly mistakes during its rollout
- Tackle homelessness, public safety, and climate change as his first policy priorities
On how to reduce corruption in local government: Koretz says inviting the FBI to do stings would serve as a deterrent against bribery and corruption and help restore public trust. He also points to legislation he supported that bans developer contributions to local election campaigns, which takes effect after this year’s primary, as well as his support for an Office of Anti-Corruption and Transparency that, if implemented, would oversee and investigate corruption among city officials.
On affordable housing and homelessness: Koretz says that during his time on the Council he pushed for creating a database to track affordable housing units set aside in market-rate developments. He says we need to prioritize affordable housing projects with city planners and the Department of Building and Safety over other kinds of development. He also supports using prefabricated modular housing to reduce costs.
On the L.A. Police Department budget: Koretz says that proposals to cut 90% of LAPD’s budget aren’t doable without compromising public safety, but that there are opportunities for cost-saving within the department. Among them: allowing more civilians to take over certain tasks from sworn officers, reducing overtime, and opening more local jails to reduce travel time and costs for booking suspects.
Certified Public Accountant
Mejia, a Koreatown resident, is an accountant who previously worked for Ernst and Young. He’s volunteered with several housing-related advocacy groups, including the L.A. Tenants Union and We Can Make A Difference - LA, the latter a community service group he co-founded that provides supplies to unhoused communities. He previously ran as a Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives District 34, making the runoff in 2018 but ultimately losing to Rep. Jimmy Gomez. Mejia has argued that being a City Hall outsider makes him better positioned to hold local government accountable than someone with close ties to power players. He’s drawn criticism from opponents in the controller’s race over deleted tweets from 2020 in which he called then-presidential nominee Joe Biden, along with President Donald Trump, “rapists” and “sexual predators.”
Top priorities: If elected, Mejia said at the April 10 debate he would first:
- Focus on where funds for homelessness get spent. Not having detailed accounts of city spending for homelessness leads to misappropriation and difficulty holding leaders accountable, Mejia says.
- Audit the cost of criminalization. “Right now, our solution is just arresting people, sweeping people, and throwing things away. And that’s not really leading to anything good,” he said.
On how to reduce corruption in local government: Mejia says his campaign has already made efforts to increase transparency and call out corruption in local government. He points to data he pulled from the L.A. Ethics Commission showing the prevalence of lobbyists’ spouses donating to local L.A. election campaigns in 2022 (campaign donations from lobbyists themselves are prohibited). Mejia also says he would push to increase the number of employees on the Ethics Commission and increase its operating budget.
On affordable housing and homelessness: Mejia says his campaign has created several public data tools to help L.A. residents on housing, spotlighting a map he released showing all the available affordable housing units across the city. He says he would also look at the city’s general ledger to get specific details of the cost of affordable housing development, including contracts, cost of goods, and income statements on projects such as Proposition HHH, and put them on a public dashboard to see how there may be better and faster ways to house people.
On the LA Police Department budget: Mejia is particularly critical of city spending on law enforcement, comparing LAPD spending to that of homelessness and housing, releasing a heat map of LAPD traffic and pedestrian stops in L.A, and highlighting that half of the city’s COVID-19 relief funds went to LAPD payroll. He says police budget increases don’t necessarily correlate to decreases in crime, so it’s important to examine how operations actually contribute to public safety.
J. Carolan O’Gabhann
Public School Teacher
O’Gabhann is a LA Unified School District teacher with LAUSD on leave for the campaign. He’s served on LAUSD’s Local School Leadership Council as well as the School Site Council, and identifies as an investor and philanthropist. If elected, he says all of his audits would be done through a “lens of climate science,” including examining whether city departments are prepared for natural disasters and working toward a goal of zero carbon emissions.
In 2020 O’Gabhann ran as a Democrat for a congressional seat in Indiana’s 9th district, but didn’t make it past the primary.
Top priorities: If elected, O’Gabhann said at the April 10 debate he would first:
- Audit the controller’s office, and talk to employees to see if any problems need to be addressed
- Meet with Neighborhood Councils to hear their concerns and mediate any conflicts they have with City Hall
- Scrutinize the Department of Water and Power and its outside contracts
- Audit all departments to ensure they’re making adequate preparations for global warming and cybersecurity threats
On how to reduce corruption in local government: O’Gabhann says there hasn’t been adequate outrage within the City Council over the cases of three councilmembers who were indicted over corruption charges. He wants to change the City Charter to allow for 100 city council members to serve, rather than the current number of 15. This would allow for greater representation across the city and more exposure to the public, he says, and they would regulate themselves through the Neighborhood Council system.
On affordable housing and homelessness: O’Gabhann says he would follow up with last year’s controller audit of Proposition HHH and see where problems remain. He would also look at the joint powers agreement between the city and county of L.A., saying that resolving conflicts between the governments could allow for more efficiency on tackling homelessness.
On the L.A. Police Department budget: He emphasizes that the controller doesn’t have direct authority over LAPD, but says through the office, he can voice his opinion that it should be “more open and more high-touch and more low-tech instead of the inverse.”
Website: none found
Endorsements: none found
Campaign finance: O'Gabhann has not filed campaign contribution information as of early May 2022.
David T. Vahedi
Chief Financial Officer
Vahedi has been an attorney and auditor, which he says puts him in a strong position for the controller’s job — he’s conducted more than 350 audits of government agencies, and plans to use his legal background to review city settlements in light of the scandal at the L.A. Department of Water and Power. His website lists his current job as chief financial officer for a media buying company, though it doesn’t list the company’s name. He co-founded and serves on the Westside Neighborhood Council, was a board member of the Westside South of Santa Monica Homeowners Association, and previously made an unsuccessful run to represent L.A. City Council’s 5th district in 2009, losing to fellow controller candidate Paul Koretz.
Top priorities: If elected, Vahedi said at the April 10 debate he would first:
- Implement anti-corruption controls, including real-time reporting and review of campaign finance to stop ethics violations before they occur
- Personally review city contracts and legal settlements for signs of corruption
On how to reduce corruption in local government: In addition to real-time review of campaign finance, Vahedi proposes having the controller’s office offer a $50,000 reward for any information that leads to an indictment of officials for corruption.
On affordable housing and homelessness: What kind of housing is L.A. actually building — affordable housing or market-rate housing with some affordable units included? That’s one of the questions Vahedi says he would address in one of his first reports as controller. He also wants to find ways to make it cheaper to build, including streamlining the entitlement process, which is the process developers and landowners go through to get approval for their building plans.
On the L.A. Police Department budget: An LAPD audit is “mandatory,” Vahedi says. He proposes using statistical sampling to identify exactly how officers are spending their time and see which tasks could be transferred to civilians, as well as exploring technological solutions, such as using Zoom to allow officers to testify in traffic court instead of having them travel to courthouses.
Community Engagement Director
Note: Rob Wilcox announced on May 19 that he was dropping out of the race for city controller. His name will still appear on the ballot.
Wilcox spent the past nine years as a spokesperson and community outreach director for City Attorney and mayoral candidate Mike Feuer. But he’s been pointing to a previous role as his biggest selling point in the controller’s race: seven years spent as a deputy under former L.A. controller Laura Chick, who was influential and well-respected for exposing many problems in city government. He’s also worked in communications for the California Independent Redistricting Commission and High Speed Rail Authority.
Top priorities: If elected, Wilcox said at the April 10 debate he would first:
- Tackle homelessness. He says he would take all the office’s auditors off their current projects and task them with finding out how to build adequate amounts of housing for unhoused communities cheaper and more quickly than what the city is currently doing, then hand the report off to the new mayor
- Focus on follow-ups to audits, including real time tracking of how recommendations are being implemented
On how to reduce corruption in local government: Controller audits should be done before federal agencies start investigating, Wilcox says. Additionally, he says the L.A. Ethics Commission needs to be “truly independent” and not have members appointed by elected officials.
On affordable housing and homelessness: It’s not about putting pressure on affordable housing developers, Wilcox says — it’s about working with them to ask: What’s taking so long? Why is it costing so much, and how can we help? He says the controller needs to work with the Planning Department to find ways to streamline regulations and build faster and cheaper.
On the L.A. Police Department budget: Wilcox says the controller should examine which tasks LAPD officers are doing that can be handled by civilians instead, saying social workers and mental health professionals can take over tasks such as responding to nonviolent cases involving people with mental health issues.