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County man

July 20, 2007 |  4:45 pm

Bill Fujioka was sworn in this morning as Los Angeles County's chief executive officer, a position invented earlier this year after it turned out no one — really, literally no one — wanted the old job of chief administrator. The difference is that the CEO has authority over most of the county departments; the old CAO worked with them, but could not direct them.

It's a step forward in L.A. County, but an awkward one. The county is still run by five legislative/executive supervisors, and Fujioka is at their mercy. Down the road, perhaps, the county will grow up and acknowledge the need for an elected executive — a true Los Angeles mayor with a jurisdiction covering 88 municipalities stretching from the beaches to the deserts.

Still, as it is Fujioka instantly becomes one of the most powerful local governmental officials in the nation. You don't get to this position without some political skills, and he has them. In his last job, as CAO of the city of Los Angeles, he was fired by then-Mayor Richard Riordan. But so what? He kept on in the job as if nothing had happened, and indeed nothing had. Fujioka rallied members of the Los Angeles City Council, which without a vote made it clear to the mayor that the firing would be ignored. It was.

Several years earlier Riordan pushed for a new city charter that, among other things, was to undermine the city CAO's stature in part by changing the name of the job to director of the Office of Administrative and Research Services. Voters passed it. But on Riordan's first day out of office, and at the urging of Fujioka, the City Council changed the name of the job right back to City Administrative Officer.

Fujioka has spent his entire career working for the city or the county of Los Angeles. Out of college he was a CETA intern for the city in the 1970s and worked as an administrative assistant for the LAPD. At the county, he worked in the personnel office, became human resources director for County-USC Medical Center, led other county hospitals, then in 1997 was hired back to the city — by Riordan — to head the personnel department. He became city CAO in 1999.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, he was involved with a gang, an experience he recounted in detail at an open City Hall hearing on resources for divert youth from gangs. He comes across as a gentle sort, but is known for a strong backbone and a penchant for profanity. "He has a vocabulary that would make a sailor, but not a supervisor, blush," Council President Eric Garcetti said at Fujioka's oath-taking today.

The new CEO is also full of surprises. He was joined on stage by Darlene Kuba, a longtime City Hall lobbyist whose clients include labor unions and property owners. Many of Fujioka's city and county associates were aware unaware that he and Kuba married earlier this year, after his retirement from the city.

"I can get a little feisty," Fujioka said at his swearing in. "And that's a good thing."

After taking the oath, which included pledges to protect the state and federal constitutions, Fujioka joked:

"I think I can do any damn thing I want with the county charter. I didn't swear to protect that."

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