CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Los Angeles Becomes Rancor City : Riordan needs to refocus on leading as mayor, not CEO, and work with, not against, the City Council and other departments.

The leaking of confidential files on Police Chief Willie Williams brings to a halt the chief's recent momentum. Williams had seemingly emerged from the dispute with Mayor Riordan's Police Commission over trips to Las Vegas and had become the city's spokesperson as racial divisiveness grew over a police shooting in Lincoln Heights and the Mark Fuhrman tapes. The police union, long hostile to Williams, had been thrown on the defensive by the Fuhrman scandal. Riordan, who had made little secret of his discomfort with Williams, was overshadowed.

The divisive legal, political and racial battle that the City Council sought to avoid by overturning the Police Commission's reprimand of the chief may now be unavoidable. That can only add to the increasingly rancorous atmosphere at City Hall among the mayor, commissioners, the police chief and the City Council, and to the curious reshaping of the Riordan Administration.

In his first year, Riordan built a strong foundation for a successful mayoralty. He constructed a solid base in the moderate middle of the City Council, saw his budgets pass easily, forged close ties with the Clinton Administration and showed an innovative ability to move money from other departments to bolster the police force. He often stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Willie Williams, the city's most popular public official. He seemed to be a different kind of Republican, strong on leadership but refreshingly non-ideological in a Democratic city. City Hall seemed revitalized, and political leaders seemed to be working together. Not surprisingly, he enjoyed strong public approval.

But City Hall today is an edgy place. After the City Council forced the resignation of two Riordan commissioners over contradictory statements about affirmative action, Riordan's spokespeople and appointed commissioners castigated the council in harsh and ad hominem attacks not heard since the the blustery Sam Yorty years. What's going on here?

Riordan's greatest strength may also be his greatest weakness. As an outsider non-politician with the approach of a CEO, he can cut through red tape, try new approaches and get the job done. That is what the voters wanted, and when they got it, they responded positively. The council barons were incorporated into the mayor's program. But the other side is the CEO who has taken over a company and wants to exert full control. In this view, the City Council is just a board of directors who ought to follow the CEO's lead. Riordan sometimes seems to be fruitlessly searching for corporate control over a city government that is not, and will not ever be, a business.

The symbol of this approach has been Riordan's long struggle with Williams. And for what? In a June Times Poll, Riordan trailed Williams in popular approval even more in 1995 than in 1994. Riordan had only 46% public approval overall, down from 59% the year before. In the San Fernando Valley he dropped drastically from 73% to 44%.

Among white voters, Riordan's base, 25% said that his dealings with Williams made them feel less favorably about the mayor. In fact, more voters overall said that Williams should be reappointed in 1997 than intended to vote for Riordan in the same year. The leaked files may severely damage Williams, whose handling of charges against himself has been less than inspiring, but Riordan's popularity may also erode.

While time and attention were being devoted to the controversies over the chief, Riordan lost considerable public support on the crime issue; only 44% approved of his performance. On his other central issue, the economy, only 33% approved. Riordan's clear early message had evaporated.

Instead of refocusing his message around his central issues, Riordan abandoned his conciliatory approach to the City Council and challenged its historic prerogatives in defense of an expansive theory of mayoral power that in Los Angeles has support neither in law nor in civic tradition.

The City Council, as a result, has become increasingly assertive. It dramatically overturned his Police Commission's reprimand of Williams and has now forced the resignation of two Riordan commissioners. In response, one of the removed commissioners launched a highly personal attack on council member Nate Holden, and a mayoral spokesperson referred to the council as "neighborhood bullies." The mayor accused the council of "McCarthyism." City Council president John Ferraro, a staunch Riordan ally, criticized Riordan for his verbal assault. Laura Chick, another backer of the mayor, argued last week that the police buildup is moving too quickly--a direct challenge to Riordan's agenda.

Council members will certainly resent being forced into the caldron of racial divisiveness and legal liability the leak will generate. The council wars, now inextricably tied to the Willie Williams wars, do not present the image of a city government that is working better, no matter how many management reforms are put into place.

Riordan is still a very powerful elected official with substantial public support and strong ties to the city's leadership. But it is the often emotional and confusing realm of political leadership, not the rational calculations of reinventing government, that will determine his success or failure in the months to come.

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