Attorney George Kieffer Helped Draft L.A.’s Charter Reforms—now he’s out to remake and give new life to the Chamber of Commerce
Los Angeles Business Journal
August 04, 2003 - George Kieffer knows all about civic duty. Four years ago, the Manatt Phelps & Phillips partner helped craft Los Angeles’ charter reform package. Then he served as policy adviser to James Hahn as he ran for mayor, and advised the new mayor during the first months of his administration. Now, as chairman of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Kieffer is trying to reverse a years-long slide in membership. He and the board’s executive committee are focused on turning the chamber into an umbrella organization for all local business groups. They have prodded the board to take controversial stands on the recall election and the state budget.
Question: Why did the chamber board vote to oppose the recall election?
Answer: It was our view – whether you like the governor or dislike the governor – that the recall process was going to be a mess and was not intended for this situation. We took no position on whether this governor was an effective governor. Indeed, we had people on our board who supported the governor and others who opposed the governor. But even those opposing the governor agreed with the position we took.
Q: Why did a business organization like the chamber support a temporary sales tax increase?
A: A businessperson addresses problems head-on. Gov. (Pete) Wilson faced the problem head-on in the early 1990s when we had an almost as serious budget shortfall and he fessed up to it and addressed the problem with both taxes and spending cuts. Everybody we talked to in Sacramento told us the only way to get out of this mess responsibly is short-term tax increases, along with substantial spending reductions, economic stimulus measures and long-term fiscal reform.
Q: But the recall is going forward and the budget agreement doesn’t include a temporary sales tax increase. Is the chamber out of step?
A: On the budget vote, we also said there needs to be workers’ compensation reform, a continuation of the manufacturers’ investment tax credit and restructuring of state finances, among other things. In this budget package, none of this is on the table.
Unfortunately, the issue got kicked over to next year. It is the Legislature that is out of step with the people and businesses, who would rather address the problems rather than postpone dealing with them. As for the recall, we recognized that it had a certain amount of momentum. It’s important nonetheless to state what’s important to us about the process.
Q: Are the workers’ compensation reforms now working their way through the Legislature enough to start cutting costs?
A: At this point, no matter what the rhetoric is on the Democratic side, we don’t see any real commitment among the legislative leadership to fix workers’ compensation in any significant way. Perhaps more important is the fear that the package (including caps on medical costs) will be so watered down by special interests that in the end it will be meaningless.
Q: So what’s it going to take to get significant reforms?
A: The pressure is going to have to come from the public on this. We hope that overcomes the pressure from interest groups. If this doesn’t work, then it will be time for the chamber to look at political reforms – something we’re looking at anyway.
Q: What kind of political reforms?
A: Re-establishing the open primary, setting up an independent redistricting commission and amending the term-limits law. When term limits are combined with safe districts, legislators are always looking at that next political office in which they have to have the support of certain constituencies and interest groups.
Q: Do you think the City of Los Angeles is headed in the right direction?
A: The city is facing tough times because of the state budget crisis. But the pieces are now in place with the mayor’s staff and the new City Council to deal with this and other pressing problems. What’s more, we have an outstanding new police chief. The business community now must step up and take greater responsibility for the welfare of the region.
Q: What about the local economy?
A: To most people, it feels like we’re stuck in a recession. But the economic analysts tell us that we’re growing at 2 percent or a little bit more. The CEOs I’ve talked to share this mixed view. While it’s not an outright recession, they don’t see the economy re-igniting right now. As a result, they are not making investments and are not that optimistic about the future.
Q: When did the L.A. Chamber’s turnaround begin?
A: About three years ago when the executive board had a retreat at a downtown hotel specifically to look at the direction of the chamber. We set forth several goals: to expand the board geographically and ethnically, to refocus to “hard politics,” with political endorsements and the like, to focus on civic promotion and to commit to be leaders in the region.
Q: What was wrong with the chamber before?
A: It had essentially given up the field to labor and other interest groups and was not really in the game. We needed to get back in the game, take stands and recommit ourselves to leading. And the pressure to do something about this had built up among a number of us on the board, myself among them.
Q: What are your major goals?
A: The date I’m looking to most of all is November, when the chamber is scheduled to launch what we’re calling the Chamber Area Network. This is an affiliation with the other chambers and business organizations throughout L.A. County – and there are some 100 of them – into a coalition to reflect and represent business interests in the region. At that time, we will be able to communicate instantaneously with some 50,000 businesses.
Q: Do you talk with Mayor Hahn frequently?
A: During the first few months of the administration, we had Sept. 11 and Mayor Hahn appointed me chair of the Economic Impact Task Force. At that time, the mayor had not yet appointed the deputy mayor for economic development. As a result, my role at the time may have been perceived as greater than it was. That being said, those of us who are friends and supporters of the mayor continue to be available when he needs us.
Q: What kind of job do you think he’s doing?
A: He’s made some tough decisions – look at the selection of a new police chief and thesecession issue. He’s helping the city to get closer to the people with his Teamwork L.A. From the business perspective, he’s working hard to streamline the business tax.
Q: What about the City Council?
A: We have a group of some of the most energetic and experienced people that I’ve seen in years.
Q: It’s been four years since voters passed charter reform in L.A. How is it working?
A: By all accounts it’s working very well. The mayor has more authority, which was sought and achieved in the charter. The neighborhood councils have begun to exercise influence on public policy. The city controller has been exercising influence on issues like city debt and fiscal management. The new charter has also been embraced by this new council, which was not the case in previous councils. That’s been very helpful. Having said all this, charters have to be judged over decades, not years.
Q: What has gone wrong with neighborhood councils? The complaints range from bureaucratic delays to arbitrary decisions from City Hall to disputed elections.
A: There’s an equal number of compliments being directed at the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. And they have exerted some influence: look at the burglar alarm issue. We always knew there would be issues with the councils. The jury is still out on how effective they will prove. Which is why we put in place an automatic review of the neighborhood councils after five years.
INTERVIEW - George Kieffer
Titles: Partner; Chairman
Organizations: Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP; Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce
Born: November 1947, New York
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from UC Santa Barbara; J.D. from UCLA School of Law
Career Turning Point: Working for David Bazelon, then Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C.
Most Admired Person: Wife, Judith
Hobbies: Published songwriter; tennis, golf and basketball
Personal: Married; two sons ages 13 and 11
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