Kenneth Mejia for City Controller: Educating Angelenos Along the Way
Kenneth Mejia states: “The Controller has the power to conduct performance audits of City departments, allowing an examination of departmental effectiveness.”
Want to know how the city spends OUR money? Ask the City Controller. Want to know where the city’s money comes from? Ask the City Controller.
According to his website, Kenneth is the only certified public accountant and community organizer supported by community grassroots funding in the election. Together with the community, we will represent the needs of everyday Angelenos.
Kenneth Mejia takes time to talk with us as we draw close to the June Primaries in California. His perspective is eye-opening and educational.
OBVIOUS Magazine endorses Kenneth Mejia!
Kenneth Mejia Interview
What powers does the Controller have?
Kenneth Mejia: The city controller is the city’s accountant, auditor, and paymaster. The city’s accountant makes sure that anything spent or anything that comes in financially is recorded and accounted for. We’re also in charge of making sure that the budget set by the city council and the mayor is adhered to, and we are making specific appropriations based on that budget are being made.
As the city’s auditor, we’re in charge of making sure that we do financial audits and performance audits of city departments to ensure they’re doing their job right and we’re not wasting money. Then as the city’s paymaster, we are in charge of paying vendors and employees. One vital thing is that we don’t have policy-making powers, but we can affect policy with our audits, analyses, and resources. That’s what we do.
Does the city controller have to have accounting or oversight experience?
Kenneth Mejia: So when this position was made over a hundred years ago, they never thought of a certified public accountant or someone with accounting or auditing experience, but it is literally the city’s accountant and auditor, and it does not require it, and that’s why anyone random person can be city controller. They can be in charge of a 12 billion dollar budget without knowing anything about finance, which is really, really shocking because to be a city attorney, you have to have a law degree or be a practicing attorney but to handle the city’s finances and be the accountant and auditor, you can be anyone.
I think that’s one of the big reasons why no one knows where the city is spending its money, what we’re doing with it, there’s no oversight, or at least people aren’t getting held to account as much as they should. We’re running because we have experience, we know what to look for, and we know what finances should look like to people, everyday people.
You’re saying “we” a lot when most people would be saying “I.” I assume that “we” is your team and not the royal We?
Kenneth Mejia: Yes.
Most people don’t focus much on city controller races. It seems like you’re trying to change that. Want to elaborate on your thinking?
Kenneth Mejia: As I said earlier, this position has been around for over a hundred years, but nine out of ten people don’t know it even exists. Sadly, a progressive, younger campaign had to get people excited about this position, even though literally, it’s been around for ages. It shows that this position has been used as a placeholder for career politicians who just do it because they need a job. And that’s why there’s really no promotion of it. There’s really no education about the role and about the city’s finances. The Controller is a powerful position who’s in charge of money and making that money available.
If you hide money or don’t make that available, you can protect special interests. You can protect people committing fraud, inefficiencies, or ineffective departments. I think that can be used for political gain and that’s not really known, and that’s why I’m running for this position because I want to dig into this. Many Angelenos are fed up with city services or departments not doing the job, and this is my specialty.
You’ve recently been dissed about being “unemployed” as an accountant at the moment. Would you like to respond to that?
Kenneth Mejia: I’ve been working since 2010, and I’ve saved up a lot of money. This position is all about money. It’s a city of four million people. I quit in December of 2021 to focus on this full-time. I’m literally on savings right now because that’s how dedicated I am to winning this race.
Way long ago, I took financial accounting. Sometimes it could be like a hunt for where an entity was hiding misleading information. Is the city hiding things or misdirecting?
I think they try their best, especially the current Controller, to be transparent about the city’s finances. One of the issues is that the city’s websites, or the controllers’ websites, are not that accessible or they’re not easy to understand. When the data is there, many of the descriptions of the financial transactions are not understandable.
So, for example, if we spent a hundred million dollars on a vendor, and then you look at the description because you’re curious. Why did we spend a hundred million? It will be like: 153 – code 3678910, and it’s like: WHAT? Like yes, you know that we spent one hundred million dollars, but if no one understands what the description means, then the data is pretty much useless.
Tying it back to whether the city’s hiding something, it’s more that they need to do a better job at making data understandable and easily accessible so that there is no doubt that the city is hiding something. It’s literally all about transparency and accessibility.
The data visualizations on your site are impressive to me. I don’t think those were easy things to put together. Are you doing all that yourself? Do you have a team?
Kenneth Mejia: The way it usually works is that I’ll do a CPRA or grab data from the city’s websites.
What’s a CPRA?
Kenneth Mejia: It’s a California Public Records Request Act. So pretty much that’s where I try to dig in and get that information from the city that’s not publicly accessible. I get that data. I usually get it in Excel or a PDF, and then I make it palatable on Excel or in an easy-to-read format, and then I work with our software engineer to come up with the maps and the website, so it’s like a combination of both.
I did go to the city controller’s website, and it was basically a long list of annual reports. Would you be able to keep your team?
Kenneth Mejia: I would love to bring the team on. They’re very good. They are modernizing technology, and they’ve made data accessible on the phone and on the computer, something the city doesn’t do a great job of.
You also have been the only “on the ground” candidate. You didn’t pay to be in the race. You got signatures instead. What was that about exactly?
We could either have paid a fee to get on the ballot or collect a lot of signatures to get on the ballot. We did the latter because we have a huge amount of grassroots support. So why will we pay to be on the ballot when we have so many supporters? So yeah, we’re always out there on the ground educating people. We have billboards. We have TikToks. We have social media… just talking about dry information, but we’re making it fun and appealing to people.
You seem to be very focused on what I guess you could call sight bites. A sound bite can be so empty of information, but the brain just gets it when you look at one of those graphs you are producing.
Kenneth Mejia: I like that term, sight bites. That’s what we try to do. There’s only so much information people can take in at one time, and we try to be as succinct as possible. You have to go with the times. You can’t put out an essay on a billboard or on a post. You have to be very quick with people’s time and make things work. I think the city is not good at that. They have a lot of old technology, or their sites don’t work, or it’s just not visually pleasing to look at, so people give up. So we are focusing on that.
Am I correct in understanding that you come from a housing activist background?
Kenneth Mejia: I’ve been a member of the LA Tenants Union since 2016. Campaigning has made it a lot busier, but I believe that housing is a human right, definitely. My organizing is around housing justice and homelessness, ensuring that people have a place to sleep and stay in. I hope that people can not be afraid of getting evicted or taken advantage of one day.
Many Angelenos agree that housing issues are one of the most pressing problems in Los Angeles. What mistakes do you think we’ve been making, and do you have any personal ideas about better solutions for affordable housing?
Kenneth Mejia: The Controller can provide audits and analyses on housing policies around protecting tenants or building housing, especially affordable housing. The city has a goal of financing and completing, on average, between 500 to 600 affordable housing units a year, which is really, really tiny, and it does not get the job done. So as Controller, I can ask why are we only building 600 a year? What can we do to build more? What is the process of going about that, given that we are in a housing shortage? So definitely, that’s something that I would like to put my focus on.
When it comes to tenants or people who are currently housed, I feel that there are a lot of policies that put tenants in a bad position. First of all, the anti-harassment ordinance for tenants is underfunded, and tenants are still getting taken advantage of. Second, the affordable housing that is in the city of LA is done so by covenant, meaning that these are buildings built 30 to 55 years ago.
The developer built these affordable housing buildings, but the affordability expires at the end of a term, which is usually 30 or 55 years, and that’s what you’re seeing today. A good example of it is in the Hillside Villa tenants in Chinatown.
Over 100 units and families’ rent will be raised from $800 to $3000 because it expired. So that should warrant a policy audit. There is a lot that needs to be audited and seen about our housing policy, on the construction side and the “staying housed” side for tenants.
You have made some big points on where LA’s ARPA funds went. Do you want to elaborate on that?
Many people asked me throughout the year, “Hey, where did we spend our COVID-19 relief?” because other cities were showing where the money was being spent. So I’m like: Let me do a CPRA and get into this, and I find out that we received 639 million dollars in federal relief from the American Rescue Plan. You’d think these funds would go directly to the people to be used to provide relief to Angelenos, and then we find out that we spent almost half of it on the police. The sad part is that the police are already one of the most well-funded. They take a large share of the city’s budget.
Then you also hear a lot about the statistics about how they were the department that had the highest rates of COVID because many were not getting vaccinated and not wearing masks. When people hear things like that, they are shocked because they thought COVID-19 relief would help the people, maybe go towards direct financial assistance or toward assisting the homeless. Ultimately, what we want to do in office is show people where the money is going because many people have this conception of where they think it should be, but it’s not.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could earmark our tax money?
Kenneth Mejia: The mayor and the City Council decide the budget. They have the power. So I tell people, if you want the budget to change, elect City Council members that can represent you and your neighborhood interests.
Mayor Garcetti’s Proposed 2022-2023 City of LA Budget