Westwater Downtown - Getting Personal with Ron Deaton
By Brady Westwater
Days after retiring from being arguably the most powerful man Los Angeles, Ron Deaton called me for an interview while he drove a young Marine – his nephew – back to Camp Pendleton. As always, Ron was taking care of family.
Except, instead of his city family, this time it was his other family. That showed me nothing had changed during his recovery from the coma that almost killed him.
Our talk quickly turned to his life of service to his city and he remarked he had started during the Johnston administration. I then said– Andrew – or Lyndon? His laughter also told me he was still the same old Ron. He then re-told my joke to his wife – and made it a lot funnier, I might add. If anything, his wit was quicker than ever.
To prepare for the interview, I called some of his oldest colleagues – particularly those who had been his more than occasional adversary, as I had sometimes been, in the past. I told them anything they said would be held in confidence; that I would not repeat any of their stories, much less attach their names to them. I then asked them for their real opinion of Ron Deaton.
They then each detailed their battles with Ron over various issues where he had represented the city's viewpoint against their viewpoints– and they all then described all the times since they had worked together. They also all agreed the city's comparative well being is due in large part to Ron's ability to bring people together to get the necessary jobs done – and to get the city to live within its means. And, was due to his ability to get people to trust him – and trust each other. None of this surprised me.
What did surprise me was that during all the praise given him for all the projects he had helped make happened – was that no one mentioned what he had helped prevent from happening. During a fiscal era when a far richer city, San Diego, almost went under during its pension crisis and wealthy Orange County had to file for bankruptcy – and during a time when cities all over the country suffered crippling deficits, Los Angeles escaped relatively unscathed.
Also unmentioned were all the battles he lost, at least temporarily, to get the city to develop its infrastructure – such as the city passing up not one but two chances to buy the twin towers of Figueroa it rented for city workers – until the city – finally – paid a far higher price for those buildings the third time around. And since the deal closed, office rents have started moving up even faster in downtown, again proving how right he had been.
My own relationship with Ron began years before I met him. Even when I lived in Malibu, I was still very involved in Downtown and whenever anything needed to get done, all roads led to Ron's door. When I moved Downtown fulltime, ten years ago, our involvement gradually increased. The first time was over the proposed relocation of Parker Center to Little Tokyo.
I disagreed with his support of the city's position. I thought there might be a way of rebuilding Parker Center at its then site, I mentioned to Ron that there might be a way for everyone to get everything they wanted (and dozen different groups were now involved from MOCA's Art Park to the Children's Museum to the Go For Broke Monument to the Little Tokyo Gym to mention just a few) – but just to see if this was feasible – there was a lot I needed to know. Water tables, locations of water and gas mains geology and soils reports, surveys, plans for existing and proposed buildings, the light rail line's specs, etc. He asked for my address and in a few hours, everything I needed to analyze those sites appeared on my desk and led to a meeting with the LAPD and city staff about the possible compromise.
That year-long-plus battle – I counted over 50 meetings in my date book - is also what brought Ron to public attention. So when the Times decided recently to profile him, I was assumed to be the go-to person for the 'Ron Deaton is Satan' quote
Even though that was NOT what I said, such was Ron's presumed power, that not once, not twice, but three times during the months of prepping the Deaton story, I was asked by the Times if I wanted to stand by my statement. I always said yes, as long as they did not lead with it. And sure enough, Zev Yaroslavsky was the lead quote with the standard government line. Then there was my - slightly mangled by the Times quote – "I'd call him God, but I don't think he'd accept the demotion".
And Ron, of course, loved the joke and understood the respect with which I meant with it.
Ron ultimately became key in the negotiations between neighborhood councils and the DWP in the quest for a Memorandum of Understanding. After months of meetings and discussions between NCs and DWP Water manager Gerry Gewe, Gewe retired and Ron became general manager of the entire agency.
Ron didn’t want to sign off on an agreement negotiated by someone else. In fact, he didn’t want an MOU. He wanted a policy letter from the manager.
He then told us what he could not agree to in the existing document - and why, but he also told us the places where we had screwed up – and what we should have asked for. It was clear he wanted an agreement that would work for both parties. But he also made it clear – he was not going to sign an MOU.
He told city council members that. He told a deputy mayor that. And, he told each member of our final negotiating committee that. It seemed his only real objection was that he did not want a binding MOU in case it turned out to be an unworkable document the city could not then get out of.
So, I just asked him: how do we change the MOU to solve his problem. He then smiled at me and said ... well … followed by a very long silence. “If we made the MOU,” he said, “ for only two years and then did a new one after seeing what worked,” that would solve his problem. I then shook his hand and we had an MOU. And all it took was asking him how he would negotiate the deal if he were on our side of the table to make the MOU work for his side.
The two years have come and gone. Now a permanent long term MOU exists – which is still the only MOU between NCs citywide and a city agency.
As the the most recent rate hike under the MOU ramped up, Ron became ill and now is now retired.
Or has he?
Might there be a second act?
(Brady Westwater is a writer and Downtown activist. He is also a regular contributor to CityWatch.)