Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi kept challenger Lyle Hall on the defensive in much of their first debate Friday, although Hall got in a reference to the issues his advisers feel are paramount--the veteran councilman's age and absenteeism.
Hall, a city Fire Department captain, spent much of the half-hour session, which was taped for television, defending himself against attacks from the 77-year-old Bernardi, who represents the San Fernando Valley's 7th District.
The councilman repeatedly criticized Hall, a 49-year-old former lobbyist for the city firefighter's union, for straining the city treasury by securing high wages and benefits for city employees.
Hall repeatedly denied that he or the city employee unions have been responsible for city fiscal problems.
But at the close of the debate, Hall took the offensive by zeroing in on Bernardi's age and council attendance record, saying that the post is a "full-time job that needs a full-time councilman."
Hall's consultant, Harvey Englander, said polls in the northeast Valley district show the incumbent's age to be the "No. 1 issue among voters, even among senior citizens."
The combative councilman, who often drowns out city officials and even his council colleagues at City Hall meetings, used the same tactic in seeking to dominate the debate Friday.
Ruth Ashton-Taylor, moderator of the KCBS-TV "Newsmakers" show, struggled to interrupt Bernardi twice to permit Hall to respond.
At the debate's end, Bernardi, seeking to make a final point, kept talking for several seconds while Ashton-Taylor tried to conclude the session.
Hall said after the debate that he regretted that the discussion "didn't really get to the issues of concern to the people of the district."
The debate will be broadcast at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on Channel 2.
Bernardi, with 28 years of council service, won 42% of the vote in the April 11 primary, short of the majority needed to secure an eighth four-year term without a runoff on June 6. Hall was second with 26% of the vote while five other candidates were eliminated.
Bernardi, who has fashioned an image as a skinflint with tax dollars, said Hall was a "bought-and-paid-for candidate" of city employee unions.
Hall retorted that he is "proud of being endorsed by the working people of Los Angeles . . . I don't think that makes me a bought-and-paid-for candidate."
The challenger said his experience as a union negotiator will aid the city because many labor problems "stem from a lack of communication" between city officials and labor representatives.
Bernardi said that while Los Angeles County employees pay between 8% and 12% of their salaries toward the county pension fund, "Lyle is paying 7%." He suggested that the relatively low rate of contribution by firefighters was responsible for a huge deficit in the pension fund.
Hall said the city's police and fire pension fund was under-financed because the "city hasn't paid its fair share into the system."
The 7th District includes Arleta, Pacoima, Sylmar and parts of Lake View Terrace, Mission Hills, North Hollywood, Panorama City, Sepulveda, Sun Valley and Van Nuys.