Losing what might have been a potent campaign issue in the race for mayor, City Councilman Michael Woo failed to persuade the City Council on Tuesday to place a measure on the April ballot to limit the terms of elected city officials.
The council voted 9 to 3 to table Woo's proposal to combine a limit of two terms for elected officials with City Charter reforms to give the mayor and council greater control over city department heads and top bureaucrats.
Instead, the council today is expected to take up a narrower proposal to limit the terms of City Council members and the mayor, controller and city attorney.
Woo had offered his proposal as an alternative to a ballot initiative being pushed by a rival for the mayor's office, civic activist and lawyer Richard Riordan.
Riordan last week presented the city clerk's office more than 300,000 signatures in an attempt to put his term-limit measure on the April ballot. It is more restrictive than Woo's proposal--limiting nearly half of the council to just one more full term.
The defeat of the Woo alternative was the latest in a round of setbacks for the Hollywood-area councilman since he declared his mayoral candidacy.
In the last several weeks, the council unanimously rejected his plans to balance the city budget and hire more police, and spurned his request for a report from Police Chief Willie L. Williams on preparations for civil unrest.
Woo did manage to win approval for city participation in an economic boycott of Colorado, after passage in that state of a measure that prohibits laws protecting the rights of homosexuals.
Several colleagues have accused Woo of political pandering--pushing unsound proposals simply to court votes in the April mayoral primary. Woo argues that he has met strenuous opposition because he is a maverick whose attempts at reform ruffle an entrenched political bureaucracy.
"I think that Mike is in a race for mayor and everything he does is driven by that race," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "It's policy by press release. And I think the city is in a desperate situation, and it cannot afford to deal any longer in this way."
Woo blamed his string of defeats on a desire by his colleagues to prevent him from winning points in the mayoral campaign and on their reluctance to break with tradition. "I'm asking council members to stick their necks out and have creative ways of dealing with problems," he said.
Woo said he was unfazed by the string of defeats. "When you are running for office, people fire potshots at you," he said.
Woo said his inability to get measures past council members does not reflect on how he would be received by them if he becomes mayor. "I will not be just one of 15 council members then but the leader of the city," he said. "There will be a sense of political momentum then, and (the council) will see it as a new beginning."
On Tuesday, council members again questioned Woo's motivation in bringing forward the term-limit measure. "These things have a tendency to get publicity and term limits are very popular right now," said one council member. "He is just trying to get some kind of attention."
Woo argued that the public would relish a chance to impose more controls on the "unseen" government of top bureaucrats. He said his proposal to establish greater oversight by the mayor and council of department heads would help draw support for term limits.
Many council members spoke in favor of a part of Woo's ballot proposal--which would have permitted all 15 members two more full terms if approved by voters, in contrast to the one full term half the council would get under Riordan's proposal.
But the lawmakers balked at the proposal to remove Civil Service protections for top city bureaucrats, noting that voters rejected similar proposals in 1980, 1983 and 1984. Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores said the Civil Service system contains enough controls and raising the issue again would distract from the central issue of limiting the terms of politicians.
The failure of the Woo measure means the council would have to act by today to meet deadlines for placing an alternative term-limit measure on the April ballot. Some council members said they still expect to support an alternative to Riordan's proposal so that all council members will be able to win election to two more full terms.
"The council is trying to put (a measure) on the ballot that is more favorable to them," argued Riordan. "I think they hope to confuse the voters. "
In the last month, Woo did not win a single vote from his colleagues on two other major proposals--one to place a measure on the April ballot to add 1,000 police officers by a combination tax increase and across-the-board reduction in other city services, and one to balance the city's budget without raising taxes--relying mostly on money from a fund used to construct parking lots.
Two other council members running for mayor--Nate Holden and Joel Wachs--have taken fewer issues before the council and, thus, have inspired considerably less criticism than Woo, colleagues said.
"Michael at least comes up with something--then you have other people shooting him down," said a colleague. "I guess you could say it's hunting season."