City controller is one of the most powerful, least talked about positions in LA government. Mejia plans to change that.
In a recently released video essay, YouTuber Sarah Z argues the 2006 cult hit Idiocracy fails to dig deep enough satirically. The film places disproportionate blame on individual failings when dissecting socio-economic problems, ignoring affluent behind-the-scenes players invested in duping well-intentioned citizens into going against their best interests. This is a fact Kenneth Mejia, a current candidate for LA city controller, understands all too well.
Mejia sees education as central to his platform. Voters are fed a steady stream of misleading information that few people in power seem keen on correcting. The city controller position is uniquely suited to help people understand both how the system works and the ways in which it often fails.
“I think our direct action as an office would be a medium of communication,” Mejia told me, “whether it’s on the news, on social media, through phone calls, through texts… One of the biggest direct actions we could do is getting this information out there in a timely manner.”
Briefly put, a city controller’s duties are to oversee audit services, accounting operations, and financial reporting. This sounds dry, but former city controllers have spotted suspicious city accounting.
In 2019, for example, LA’s then controller released a 17-page report revealing that one LAFD employee earned $360,000 in overtime pay during the fiscal year. The issue resurfaced two years later with the discovery that LAFD again overpaid a number of employees who had possibly fabricated overtime hours — a serious mishandling of city funds.
The city controller position, while overlooked, has the potential to spur radical top-down change with the right person in the driver’s seat.
The Watchdog of Our Finances
“[The city controller] is a position that’s very powerful,” Mejia told me. “It’s on the same level as the mayor and the city attorney. It’s been around for over 100 years. It’s the watchdog of our finances, just making sure that the city is operating as it’s supposed to. It’s a position that everyone should know about, but the truth is, over 90% of people we talk to have no clue what the city controller position is.”
A city controller’s responsibilities sound largely clerical, but it’s a sort of choose-your-own-adventure elected position. You can quietly coast while crunching the numbers. Or, you can speak truth to power from inside the system. Mejia plans to do the latter.
Mejia is a certified public accountant (CPA) and lifelong Angeleno who has an extended history of involvement in grassroots organizations. In 2016, he co-founded a community service group called We Can Make a Difference – LA, which provides essential services to unhoused communities and low-income families. That same year, he joined the LA Tenants Union, where he saw the impact of rent increases and evictions firsthand. In 2017, he became a neighborhood council board member in Koreatown.
As a CPA, the next logical step for Mejia was vying for the city controller position, an opportunity to use his professional knowledge to enact change on a larger level.
“A lot of people now are starting to ask questions on where their tax dollars are being spent,” Mejia said. “That’s the reason we’re running. Because no one really knows. My specialty is around finance and accounting. This position can really do wonders to help people lobby their policymakers for resources or for changes.”
It’s easy for politicians to look good written down on paper. Rallying behind environmental reform and affordable housing gets you progressive brownie points, but if there’s no transparency about whether social programs actually get the promised funds, backing positive legislation feels like lip service. This is where the city controller steps in.
“We don’t have policy-making power, but I think the biggest impact we can have is providing information for people,” Mejia says. “Making it transparent, making it easy to understand. And then basically being able to call and hold these elected officials accountable. There are so many programs, there are so many things these politicians say, but nobody checks them.”
As a CPA, Mejia is specially equipped to translate complex financial information into digestible terms. Yet, it’s highly unusual for someone with his background to run for controller
“The city has never had a CPA for city controller,” Mejia tells me. “I think this position has been used for decades as a placeholder position for musical chairs for other politicians.”
Roles like city controller — which slip under the public’s radar — are often stepping stones for career politicians, very few of whom have the expertise necessary to understand the field they’re responsible for overseeing.
Ron Galperin, the current city controller now running for the position at the state level, is a former attorney whose relevant experience comes from politically adjacent positions. He served as a neighborhood council budget advocate and was a chairman of the Los Angeles Commission on Revenue Efficiency.
“You need to be an attorney or JD [juris doctor] to be a city attorney,” Mejia says, “but you don’t need any accounting or auditing or finance experience to be the city’s auditor. One voter told me he was shocked because, he made the comparison, you would never hire someone at random to do your taxes. Why would you allow that on the city level?”
This is not a problem unique to LA. Politically savvy individuals — those who are very, very good at running for office — often procure positions, either through election or appointment, without any real experience. Nothing in Pete Buttigieg’s background suggests an affinity for managing transportation, for example, but here we are, and a lot seemingly comes down to money.
It takes a hefty chunk of change to successfully run for office (Knock LA has crunched the numbers before). The majority of congresspeople are millionaires, and soon-to-be-former LA Mayor Eric Garcetti once sought a tenant to rent one of his spare homes for a cool $5,000 a month. Such opulence isn’t representative of LA as a whole. As it says on Mejia’s website, the average LA income hovers around $35,000 per year.
“Whether you’re unhoused or you’re a tenant getting a large rent increase or getting harassed,” Mejia told me, “you realize it’s all driven by those in a policy-making position or those who have capital. That’s what inspired me to try and go for these positions. … To put a spotlight on why are things the way they are.”
Where Is the Money Going?
One major point of contention Sarah Z raises about Idiocracy is the idea that people are misinformed due to apathy, laziness, and a lack of critical thinking skills. Willful ignorance is a myopic notion given that staying informed is an uphill battle. Information is often either not readily available or made available through unreliable channels. This problem is especially egregious when it comes to tracking the flow of taxpayer dollars.
“It’s very hard to get in contact with the controller’s office,” Mejia told me. “If I want to ask direct questions, I have to do a CPRA.”
CPRA refers to the California Public Records Act, which allows citizens to submit requests regarding a variety of publicly available information. Technically, the city must respond to CPRA requests within 10 days, but a response does not necessarily mean you’ll get an answer. Oftentimes, it boils down to “we’re working on it,” meaning it can take months to get fairly basic information.
“[Galperin]’s websites need to be revamped,” Mejia said. “There are also a lot of things that are not transparent on his website, like revenue transactions. … It’s not transparent on where the $800 million homelessness spending is going. No one knows where the homelessness spending’s going. In addition, his website is very difficult to use. … I wish there was more education on how to use the website, how to find information on, especially where your tax dollars are going.”
Mejia already has a track record of keeping his eye on the money. He often tweets what he discovers via CPRA requests and other means, often conveying information on city spending relevant to the public.
While Galperin ostensibly handled the aforementioned LAFD overpayment scandal, Mejia tweeted out a list of the 20 highest-paid City of LA employees for the first nine months of 2021. Every employee listed was either from the LAPD or LAFD, with LAFD employees comprising 17 spots. It is unclear whether Galperin — or anyone else — was proactive about tackling the overpayment issue.
“What has been the follow-up?” Mejia asked. “Has there been any changes? Are they booking [overtime] correctly now? We would stay on top of our audits, we would stay on top of our recommendations.”
In March of 2022, Mejia discovered via CPRA request that 50% of funds from the American Rescue Plan — supposed to be put toward COVID relief — went to the police. This misappropriation of funds, which might have otherwise gone unnoticed, spurred press coverage. As controller, Mejia could release this type of information more readily, without waiting for CPRA requests to process.
“That is the best kind of direct action a controller can do is just communicating this information and getting it out there,” Mejia told me. “We got media coverage about that when we dropped that bombshell. We had people contacting the councilmembers. I think that’s really one of the best types of transactions as a city controller we can do, making sure people understand.”
Rather than taking politicians at their word when they claim progress is being made, Mejia envisions an interactive website anyone can log onto and see what concrete action is being taken.
“We want to create a database online tool that tracks the progress of our audits, of our findings, of our recommendations,” said Mejia, “with a status bar to see if the city council or the respective departments have actually made the moves to correct these findings.”
Mejia is already taking steps to keep the public informed. In addition to readily sharing information via Twitter, he hosts accessible workshops for those who want to learn more about how the government spends taxpayer money.
“We do Zoom and Twitch streams about educational things,” Mejia said. “On resources, on finances, on financial literacy. We’re doing it already. And we’re going to keep doing it.”
A Radical Redistribution of Power
“People think [Los Angeles] is like a liberal and welcoming place,” Mejia says, noting he loves LA and its culture, but is frustrated by the government’s response to socio-economic issues. “When you look at these stats on homelessness, over 40,000 now, when you look at the poverty level, when you look at the fact that over 70,000 households applied for emergency rental assistance, there are a lot of people here that are hurting. It’s not like personal decisions. This is how it is.”
Mejia’s platform is ambitious — not just because he pledges lofty goals, but because of how he plans to achieve them. Mejia would base decisions not only on his own financial expertise but by drawing insight from those most directly impacted by misappropriation of city funds.
Mejia told me his platform was created by those with lived experiences.
“When we talk about homelessness, we always go to academics. … But we don’t actually talk to the people on the ground, the people who actually live on the streets,” he said.
Mejia plans to form a lived experience oversight department, which would provide feedback and recommendations on reports made by the controller’s office.
The environment is another issue where Mejia is concerned about the lives of those most impacted by high-level decisions. Mejia wants to get Los Angeles to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2030.
“We’ve seen the science. We’ve seen that we need to get to zero emissions. … What’s the alternative?” he said. “We should just accept the fact that this is it and future generations are basically left with the bad decisions we made?”
As city controller, Mejia plans to audit Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Green New Deal to ensure we’re meeting projected goals in a time-effective manner. The idea of 100% clean energy is often derided as unrealistic, but if we can learn anything from Mejia, it’s to follow the money. It’s now well-known that lobbying on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute (API) — a trade organization that rakes in millions in donations from oil companies each year — stymies environmental reform on a national level.
Major media networks like CNN and MSNBC sell plenty of ad time to API and similarly motivated members of the fossil fuel industry. Clean energy is frequently criticized as pure fantasy, but those voicing such objections often not-so-coincidentally have a lot to gain from encouraging feelings of helplessness. If the battle’s already lost, why bother trying?
“[100% clean energy] is only unrealistic if policymakers succumb to big oil or gas,” Mejia said. “You could talk to everyone here, those who live next to fossil fuels or oil wells or drilling sites. Like, when is enough enough? When is enough? I feel like this question always gets pushed to the side for years and years to come, people suffer, and eventually we just wait for something bad to happen.”
‘The System Allows This.’
Mejia’s long history of activism — his time in the LA Tenants Union, his participation in the neighborhood city council — has taught him the not-well-advertised ways citizens can advocate for themselves.
“I’m very inspired by the community and the autonomy that’s built by people who just come together,” Mejia told me. “Especially tenants who come together, who recognize their power, and basically they demand holding their landlords accountable and making sure they don’t get harassed and they fight back against unjust rent increases. The system allows this. That’s one of the reasons why it shapes my policies, too. Whether you’re unhoused or you’re a tenant getting a large rent increase or getting harassed, you realize it’s all driven by those in a policy-making position or those who have capital.”
Holding those with capital accountable is a tenuous task, one that can easily render people hopeless. But defeatist messaging — the stuff that tells us it’s already too late, that proposed solutions are unattainable — is often pushed by those with financial ties to affluent behind-the-scenes players.
If the problem is money in politics, part of the solution is tracking where that money is going, and holding powerful players accountable when they misuse taxpayer funds.
If Mejia is elected this November, that is exactly what he plans to do.
Kenneth Mejia is one of several candidates endorsed by Ground Game LA, Knock LA’s parent organization.