When Mayor Richard J. Riordan vetoed a South Los Angeles development project, the City Council responded with a stinging 15-0 override. The mayor hasn't tried that again.
But in the three months since, Riordan has refused to sign or veto at least half a dozen pieces of legislation, avoiding nasty public fights and allowing the matters to become law. Instead, he has registered his opposition in oft-chastising missives to his City Hall colleagues.
This way, Riordan avoids the potential embarrassment of another override, yet retains a record that would allow him to blame the council for various city policies if challenged in a reelection campaign.
The emerging pattern--which has involved issues ranging from janitorial services at the Police Academy to the employment of Civic Center security guards--has further strained Riordan's notoriously poor relations with his City Hall colleagues.
"These letters are a reflection of how hard it is for him to get over the idea that the city is run like a corporation where the CEO gives directives and everybody follows," Councilwoman Ruth Galanter said.
While Galanter and other liberal lawmakers have long fought with the Republican mayor, Riordan's latest strategy threatens to alienate some of his council allies, because this battle is less about substantive political differences than one of process. The chief executive or his staff should raise objections while the council is considering the measures, council members said, not after the votes are cast.
"I think maybe there should be more input from the mayor early on, instead of waiting until it's a fait accompli," said Council President John Ferraro, who was careful not to criticize the mayor on the record. "When it comes right down to it, you have to know how the system works inside. I think that's been one of Dick Riordan's handicaps. He came in from the outside."
In Los Angeles' "strong council/weak mayor" system, the chief executive has 10 days to sign or veto an ordinance once the council passes it. If the 10 days pass without mayoral action, the bill becomes law.
According to records at the city clerk's and mayor's offices, Riordan has failed to sign or veto 14 ordinances since he became mayor in 1993. Half of those have come since the Dec. 6 override regarding a South Los Angeles development project, though in one case, the mayor simply was not in City Hall to offer his signature when the 10 days expired.
Robin Kramer, Riordan's chief of staff, denied that her boss is employing a new political strategy, noting that the mayor has signed 99% of the 460 ordinances that have crossed his desk since December.
"Folks are reading too much into this," she said.
But many of the measures that he signed were routine, noncontroversial items. The question among City Hall insiders is whether Riordan has the confidence to veto when he disagrees, which he has not done since the December override. Kramer said the mayor is simply being practical.
"In some cases, the political tea leaves, if you read them, it's pretty clear that if the mayor were to veto . . . the veto would be overridden, and how would life for people on the streets of Los Angeles be much different?"
During nearly three years in office, Riordan has used the veto six times. Two were technical vetoes that the council requested to correct mistakes in the legislation it passed. Of the other vetoes, two have been overridden.
"The mayor has strong views about things. He's not shy about expressing them," Kramer said. "We try and pick our disagreements in a careful way."
But while Riordan has been selective about his veto, the critical letters that accompany his failure to sign ordinances are themselves fueling bad feelings.
The recent spate of letters began two days after the council overrode Riordan's veto of a mixed-use project at 81st Street and Vermont Avenue. The mayor wanted a commercial-only development.
In a letter about a new law that prevents vendors who get new city contracts from firing the employees working on the project, Riordan told council members that their decision was "legally flawed" and "likely to be counterproductive."
He said he was "convinced that there are a number of alternative approaches available" and "confident that a careful review . . . could yield solutions with less draconian impact, and less legal uncertainty." Some council members who had been dealing with the issue for more than a year were insulted.
"A much more productive and effective way of communicating is to have a two-way dialogue on the front end," Councilwoman Laura Chick said. "It is not productive to have the conversation at the back end and to have a one-way communication in writing."
Councilman Mike Feuer echoed Chick's request that Riordan's office air concerns in committee and council meetings so legislation can be amended.
"It's easy, and I think ineffective, to send legislation back without signature after the fact," Feuer said. "If we can't have that dialogue, I think it's a symptom of a relationship that has gone beyond repair."
In other instances, the mayor vowed in his letters to essentially undo the ordinances while drafting his next budget.
He refused on Feb. 29 to sign the council's authorization for eight new security guards around City Hall, noting the looming $200-million deficit and cautioning that "it is unlikely that I will propose funding for another eight officers in next year's budget." A week earlier, Riordan sent a four-page memo to the council criticizing its decision to award a janitorial contract at the Police Academy to city employees and instructing city staff to launch a new bid analysis of the project.
"As a result of the shortcomings in the recommended proposal and the evaluation process, I believe we must reexamine this decision before the coming fiscal year," the mayor wrote, referring to "inconsistencies and inaccuracies" in the file the council approved.
That letter caused more resentment.
"It means, 'You City Council members don't have power. Your budget process is meaningless. You can vote on something today, and tomorrow I can wiggle the numbers around in the budget,' " sputtered an angry Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg.
Even Richard Alatorre, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee and has been the mayor's strongest council backer, found the actions cause for concern.
"It's going to be a very tough budget, and it's going to take leadership," Alatorre said. "I made it very clear [to the mayor's staff] I don't want to see a budget that is going to make us do all the bad things to balance it. It's got to be a cooperative venture."
But Alatorre, Ferraro and even some of the mayor's traditional opponents on the council said Riordan's new habit of not signing ordinances rather than risking a veto is probably prudent.
"To just blindside someone and let them know with a veto you had a concern . . . it's unfair to the members of the council and it doesn't lend itself to better relationships," Alatorre said. "Ultimately, you have to choose what fight you have to fight."