In only his second session as a Los Angeles City Councilman, Richard Alarcon made a strong showing Tuesday, stalling a parting gesture by his predecessor, Ernani Bernardi, that set up a $1-million scholarship fund in Bernardi's name.
Alarcon, the first Latino councilman from the San Fernando Valley, also led a debate on a state anti-crime bill, urging the death penalty or life in prison without parole for those guilty of drive-by killings.
Flexing his muscle early, Alarcon put the brakes on the plan to endow the Bernardi scholarship fund with money initially earmarked to pay for public amenities for northeast Valley residents who live near the city's Lopez Canyon garbage dump in Lake View Terrace.
Leaders of some homeowners groups in the area have protested that the scholarship was an inappropriate use of the fund, which is supposed to provide compensatory benefits for the dump's neighbors. They had protested in the past about Bernardi's use of the fund for other projects.
At Alarcon's request, the council quietly agreed Tuesday to postpone for three weeks a vote to transfer $1 million from the Lopez Canyon Community Amenities Trust Fund to the newly created Ernani Bernardi Scholarship Trust Fund for students at Mission College, a two-year school in Sylmar.
Bernardi declined to comment on the matter when reached at his home Tuesday afternoon.
On June 29, two days before Alarcon replaced him, Bernardi won council approval of an ordinance that mapped out how the scholarship fund would be administered. But still to be authorized was the actual transfer of the $1 million.
Alarcon briefly told the council Tuesday that he wanted the three-week delay so he could have "an opportunity to look" at the plan in greater detail.
But later the councilman said that while he has not made up his mind, the proposed $1-million transfer represents "a large amount of money out of the Lopez Canyon trust" and he wants to reconsider whether the scholarship would be an appropriate use for it.
While campaigning for office last spring, Alarcon, who was ex-Mayor Tom Bradley's top Valley adviser, promised he would seek comments from northeast Valley residents on how to spend the Lopez Canyon funds.
Several critics have complained that Bernardi, who voluntarily stepped down from his council seat last week after 32 years in office, treated the Lopez Canyon account as he pleased.
Especially galling to them was a previous Bernardi plan--approved by the council--to spend $850,000 of Lopez Canyon trust money on an anti-gang program in Pacoima. The critics argued that Pacoima residents are not affected by the landfill and thus do not deserve any help from the trust fund.
Under the terms of the Lopez Canyon trust, the money is to be spent on projects to make life easier for residents affected by the noise, odors and traffic generated by the landfill, the only dump operated by the city of Los Angeles.
The council agreed to set aside $1 million each year for five years for the fund. Bernardi refused to vote for a 1991 plan to expand the landfill, situated in his district, unless the city set up the fund.
The Bernardi scholarship fund was to have been the largest endowment ever received by Mission College, a 6,000-student campus that is part of the state community college system.
The college, largely serving students from the low-income, heavily Latino-populated areas of Pacoima, Sylmar and the city of San Fernando, only recently was able to move from store-front classrooms to its own 22-acre campus.
"My kudos to Councilman Alarcon, I think it was obvious that $1 million for a scholarship fund in perpetuity is outrageous," said Lew Snow, president of the Lakeview Terrace Homeowners Assn. "It also takes a lot of guts for Alarcon to take a second look at a memorial created for someone who is so widely revered."
Alarcon also made a strong impression Tuesday during a debate on state legislation that would make drive-by killings a crime punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole, winning praise from Council President John Ferraro.
"He was very poised, and I was very impressed on how he handled this debate," said Ferraro, a council member since 1967.
The council finally voted 11 to 3 to support the bill.
Alarcon forcefully urged his colleagues to back the legislation, adding that there had been a drive-by shooting only a block from his Sylmar residence recently. "I've been to too many funerals" of innocent victims, he said.
After another lawmaker argued that the impact of such a law would fall disproportionately on minority youngsters, Alarcon responded:
"I'm confident that a vast majority of minorities would support this. . . . I'm speaking for the victims."
Alarcon said he had "strong questions" about the deterrent value of capital punishment but nevertheless believed the prospect of longer prison sentences would be helpful.