When four of the candidates running for Los Angeles city attorney recently debated on the home turf of their chief opponent, City Councilman Jack Weiss, there was no question about whom they were targeting -- or the level of animosity that simmers among some of Weiss' Westside constituents.
The forum's organizers, most of whom supported the unsuccessful recall of Weiss two years ago, had invited representatives from several dozen homeowners' groups and theatrically left an empty chair for their two-term councilman, who was attending a family event.
Complaints about Weiss' accessibility, his close alliance with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his openness to development began rolling in during the first round of questions. It was not long before one opponent, Deputy Dist. Atty. David Berger, took out a photograph of Weiss and jokingly invited the audience to throw darts.
The tone of that forum in Holmby Hills has pervaded the city attorney's race this year, even as Weiss has raised a lot more money than his opponents while raking in endorsements from a diverse spectrum that includes Police Chief William J. Bratton, labor unions, gun-control advocates and women's organizations.
Weiss and his supporters characterize his critics as a small, vocal group angered by his tendency to prioritize the city's broader interests over his district's.
But the controversy over his style -- including his prickly relationships in council chambers -- has taken aback even some of the candidates vying to replace him in the 5th District City Council race.
When she began knocking on doors, candidate Robyn Ritter Simon said she found "deep" resentment: "The first thing out of their mouths was, 'If you're running against Jack, I'll support you,' " she said.
Many of Weiss' colleagues and his former bosses, however, are quick to praise his intellect and legal skills. The city attorney's office, some of them say, may simply be a better fit for the former federal prosecutor, who is impatient with the slow pace at City Hall and eager to return to the courtroom.
Councilman Greig Smith said Weiss would be the first to admit that he's been "difficult to work with at times -- that's an understatement." Said Councilwoman Jan Perry: "I don't deal with him. It's easier not to."
Some council members privately grouse about Weiss' dismissive manner, his frequent absences from the council floor and his tendency to disappear when council members are honoring residents who have recently died.
A few are frustrated by what they view as Weiss' unwillingness to buck the mayor.
But Smith said council members have relied on Weiss' legal reasoning.
"He may not be warm and fuzzy, but you know the integrity is there," said Smith, who has endorsed Weiss along with seven others on the 15-member council. "Difficult guy to deal with, but he'll be a great city attorney."
In his campaign for the citywide office that will be vacated this year by Rocky Delgadillo, the UCLA Law School graduate is touting his six years as a prosecutor in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office.
Richard E. Drooyan, then chief of the Criminal Division, said Weiss was among a group of "really top-flight prosecutors" and that he developed quickly into a hardworking and aggressive attorney.
Over that time, Weiss took eight cases to trial. He won convictions of a Thai restaurateur accused of keeping employees in involuntary servitude, and of an original member of the Mickey Mouse Club who went to prison for securities fraud and obstruction of justice and perjury before the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Though Weiss was assigned to white-collar crime, another former criminal division chief, David C. Scheper, said he had a "nose for getting into the muck and mire and grime of street crime."
While investigating an armed robbery of the Postal Service credit union in Los Angeles, Scheper said, Weiss "got the gangbangers to join his team," securing the conviction of an Immigration and Naturalization Service officer who plotted the crime.
Jeff Eglash, former chief of the U.S. attorney's public corruption unit, remembered Weiss as careful and methodical. "He never rushed to judgment -- he didn't indict before a case was fully developed." One case that drew Eglash's notice was Weiss' investigation of a Superior Court judge who admitted in 2001 to giving special treatment to a defendant who said the judge coerced her into a sexual relationship.
Several of Weiss' opponents have questioned why he did not handle more trials. Carmen "Nuch" Trutanich, a former district attorney who prosecuted hard-core gang members and later defended environmental crimes as a private attorney, said Weiss' experience "pales in comparison to mine."
Eglash, however, said that federal cases are most often settled and that Weiss tackled "complex and important cases" that took time.
Over Weiss' eight years representing a district that stretches across Century City, Cheviot Hills, the Fairfax district, Westwood, Sherman Oaks and Encino, neighborhood leader Ben Neumann of Studio City said the councilman "has put constituents into two groups: the people that hate him or love him."
Among his top accomplishments in the district, Weiss lists his work on behalf of the Jewish community. Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City said Weiss has always been accessible -- "he responds on a human level."
Weiss has focused intently on public safety issues -- from his unwavering support of hiring 1,000 more police officers, to increasing the city's ability to handle a backlog of DNA evidence, to homeland security. But some council members say that as chairman of the Public Safety Committee, Weiss delayed giving hearings to legislation if it was not among his priorities.
Weiss' most outspoken critics are still the residents who tried to recall him, contending he was too quick to side with developers -- some of whom have contributed to his campaign -- in areas such as Century City, with its growing traffic problems and overburdened infrastructure. They argued he'd showed "extraordinary disdain" for constituents, but they failed to collect the required number of signatures.
Weiss also angered some when he showed up with the mayor at a news conference supporting a congestion-relief plan redirecting traffic on Pico and Olympic boulevards. Opponents said he had indicated he would wait until there was a more expansive review of the project. Recently, to the dismay of some homeowners, he supported moving a contingent of police officers out of the Westside.
Weiss said he's always tried to act "not just in terms of a narrow local interest, but in terms of what's good for the whole city and its future."
Even some residents who praise Weiss' work find his style puzzling. An oft-cited example was his abrupt departure from a 2007 meeting of the Benedict Canyon Assn. after several audience members complained he needed to pay more attention to rented party houses, which were bringing in traffic that blocked narrow streets.
"He got up and stormed out; he was not happy about being asked about the party houses and it was a really serious issue," said resident Kathryn Scott.
A spokeswoman for Weiss said he left simply because he had committed to 30 minutes, stayed longer and "had to go."
Bel-Air resident Stephen Twining said he met with Weiss while he and others were seeking a master plan for the Mulholland Corridor.
During the meeting, Weiss "played with his BlackBerry and paid virtually no attention," Twining said.
Martin Jon Liberman, a neighborhood activist in the area around South Robertson, said Weiss' reluctance to spend time mingling has hurt him: "He's very easy to work with, but if you're waiting for him to come to a public event, or a meet-and-greet, you're going to grow old gracefully before that happens. What he does well is hire good people, give them direction and allow them to represent him in his district."
Encino neighborhood activist Rob Glushon pointed out that the 5th District has severe traffic congestion and deteriorating infrastructure.
Whoever becomes the district's council member "is going to be blamed for those problems," he said, adding that criticism that Weiss is detached and inaccessible is "well-founded."
Weiss said his staff received more than 13,000 requests for service over a seven-year period and is proud of the way his office handled them. He shrugged off the tenor of the campaign -- from Berger's invitation to throw darts to a new mailer from Trutanich superimposing Weiss' picture onto the face of a puppy sitting on Villaraigosa's lap.
"It is an important job, and it is important to handle yourself in a way that generates respect and confidence from the public," Weiss said. "That's what I've tried to do in this campaign."
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.