April 17, 2007

By Paul Feinberg

Sally ChoiTo get to Sally Choi's ('06) office, you are required to step through a metal detector, while your belongings ride past security guards on a conveyor belt. You must sign in and receive a visitor's pass from uniformed personnel, who then direct you to the third floor of Los Angeles' City Hall. There, an exceptionally friendly staff asks you to take a seat in an ornately tasteful waiting area adorned with paintings by Diego Cardoso. Before long, you're lead through a maze of staircases and hallways, past seemingly endless rows of cubicles before reaching her office.

Sally Choi is Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, Finance and Performance Innovation. She first made news in November at the time of her appointment; she is the first Korean-American woman to be a deputy mayor in Los Angeles and that alone caught the attention of the local media, particularly the Asian press.

Her duties are twofold. On the financial end, she is responsible for preparing the city's $6.7 billion budget for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. On that front, she says the greatest challenge is making sure that the city remains on a fiscally responsible path while making investments in critical city services. "The budget has a structural deficit," she said, due to revenue shortfalls from 2001 when the fallout of the dotcom bust and 9/11-related terrorism issues left Los Angeles short of projected revenues. "We're required to present a balanced budget every year, with goals of expanding some programs and also reducing the structural deficit." Currently, the cooling of the once white-hot real estate market is cutting into revenue growth, intensifying the challenge facing Choi and her staff.

"We have to look for efficiency," she said. "The question is, 'How can you work smarter and make sure you find the best use for taxpayer dollars?'"

Mayor Villaraigosa's main concern is public safety. He has a goal of adding 1,000 net new police officers over five years and the city is committed to adding 780 of those officers next year. "That's a top priority (in the budget)," Choi said. "But even the police department isn't exempt from finding efficiencies in their operations."

The budget process is complex. Choi and her staff work closely with the City Administrative Office (CAO) to prepare the budget for the mayor. He then submits it for scrutiny by the city council; where the budget committee headed by Councilman Bernard Parks holds hearings where Choi presents. Then, it's back to the mayor, who can accept the council's changes or veto them. He then re-submits the budget to the council for approval. The current budget was submitted to the council on April 19th, but isn't scheduled to be finalized until June.

The other side of Choi's responsibilities relate to the performance management unit, a concept implemented by Villaraigosa and modeled after strategies employed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The mayor has instituted a set of performance objectives with obtainable outcomes that Choi likens to a strategic plan for Los Angeles. There are six focus areas with 26 outcomes. For each of these there are a set of objectives and initiatives to meet those objectives. For example, in the focus area of energy and the environment, the mayor would like to plant 1 million trees.

"All of it is monitored by our group," Choi explained. "My team evaluates each plan and monitors the progress. There are a lot of ambitious goals, both performance goals and fiscal goals and we track (those) as well."

Leadership Training
Prior to joining the mayor's team, Choi served as assistant general manager for the city employees' retirement fund, where she helped manage about $10.1 billion dollars in assets (the fund is now at $10.8 billion). She continued to work there while a student in UCLA Anderson's Fully-Employed MBA (FEMBA) Program. She decided to earn an MBA to increase her career opportunities and enhance her management skills.

Choi joined the mayor's office just months after completing her class work at UCLA Anderson. She says that the leadership training she received at Anderson was immediately applicable. "My Anderson experience gave me the confidence that I could lead a team and a large organization," she said. "It taught different ways to come up with ideas on how to solve problems and to be creative. All of that leadership training in addition to finance training really helped me to think outside the box."

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