The battle between the City Council and Mayor Richard Riordan over who will lead government reform efforts escalated Friday, with the council deciding to fight a Riordan lawsuit council members said would allow Riordan to prevail.
The mayor and Dan Garcia, a Riordan ally who heads the city's Airport Commission, filed a lawsuit against the City Council last week, asking a federal judge to clear up legal questions about how and when to elect a citizens panel to draft government reforms.
Riordan wants the panel elected by city voters. The council members want an advisory panel appointed by themselves.
The lawsuit is the latest chapter in an ongoing tug-of-war between the council and Riordan over a reform drive that was sparked by threats of a San Fernando Valley secession.
Riordan, Garcia and Studio City attorney David Fleming led a petition drive that collected more than 300,000 signatures endorsing the creation of the reform panel. The city clerk's office is now trying to verify that at least 197,000 signatures are valid to qualify the measure for the ballot.
Riordan's lawsuit says that state and federal law are in conflict over whether the members of the reform panel should be elected at-large or by councilmanic district. The suit asks a federal judge to rule that the election should be by district.
The lawsuit also asks a judge to rule that, once the initiative qualifies, the council be obligated to put it on ballot for the next regular election in April.
But a majority of the council opposes the election of a reform panel, saying the council represents the people and therefore should lead any reform effort in the city.
In response to Riordan's petition, the council has appointed a 21-member advisory panel to recommend measures to reform the city's 71-year-old charter.
On Friday, the council met for nearly two hours behind closed doors to discuss Riordan's lawsuit. Officials who were in that meeting said the council instructed the city attorney's office to fight the lawsuit because a majority of the council wants the state Legislature--and not a judge--to clear up the legal questions.
"Why not have the Legislature address this in open session rather than have some judge in a back room make the decision?" said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, a critic of Riordan's reform efforts.
But Fleming said a judge can act much faster on the issues than the Legislature. "It's just a delaying tactic," Fleming said. "It's obvious that the council just wants to hold on to the power."
Councilman Joel Wachs, who has been the lone council supporter of Riordan, said, "The council is going to do everything it can to stop this."
But Wachs said the council should not stand in the way of a reform effort that has such widespread support. "It's very rare that 300,000 people sign a petition like this," he said.