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Feuer’s Zeal for Reform Earns Colleagues’ Ire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer entered City Hall nearly two years ago brimming with idealism and a promise to champion government and campaign finance reform.

But Feuer’s zeal and his drive to reform City Hall have earned the ire of some council members who have dubbed him “Saint Michael.” The nickname is not meant as a compliment.

It is not the first time Feuer has come under fire for his reformist positions. The latest criticism, however, has been more public and harsh.

Feuer took a drumming last week for being one of only four council members to oppose a ballot measure asking voters to lift a $10,000 spending limit on so-called “officeholder” funds that council members use to pay for travels, dinners and literature.

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“I’m sick and tired of the grandstanding,” Councilman Nate Holden told Feuer during a council meeting.

Feuer has also been blamed by some colleagues for the contentious political feud between the council and Mayor Richard Riordan over charter reform because it was Feuer who led the initial charge for reform in the wake of San Fernando Valley secession threats.

Feuer--the former head of a legal-aid center--defends himself, saying he is simply trying to make good on campaign promises to push government and ethics reform.

And despite the criticism, he believes he can continue to work well with his colleagues.

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“That is what politics is about: having strongly held views and getting together to work out our differences,” he said.

Council President John Ferraro, who named Feuer the head of the influential committee on rules and elections, said he has warned Feuer that he may rub his colleagues the wrong way with his fervent call for ethics reform.

Ferraro said Feuer is “young and impatient” but has good intentions.

“He has some strong ideas,” Ferraro said. “Sometimes he needs time to learn the procedures.”

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The tension between Feuer and some council members provides a glimpse into the often volatile relationships among the 15 men and women who lead the city.

Like a family, the members routinely bicker and feud. But on the council, the bad blood sometimes seeps into the business of running the city.

This was most evident when a majority of the council recently voted to place a measure on the April ballot asking voters to override a state initiative that lowered the spending limit on the officeholder accounts from $75,000 a year to $10,000.

The council majority wants to keep the limit at $75,000, saying it needs the money to serve constituents. The officeholder accounts are funded by lobbyists and supporters but government watchdog groups have criticized the accounts as being slush funds.

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Feuer opposed the ballot measure, saying the voters had approved the lower limit by adopting Proposition 208. Asking voters to override it would be like “flaunting the will of the people,” he said.

“The voters made clear what their intentions were,” he said. “By putting this on the ballot we are sending a message about our priorities.”

Feuer’s comments drew a harsh response from Holden and Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.

“Mister Feuer seems to suggest that there is a higher ground that [he has] staked out that the balance of the council does not seem to appreciate,” he said.

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A majority of the council ultimately voted to put the measure on the ballot, with only Feuer and Councilman Richard Alatorre dissenting.

Ridley-Thomas and Feuer also locked horns during a recent closed session to discuss a Riordan-backed initiative to overhaul the 72-year-old charter that serves as the city’s constitution.

The feud between Riordan and the council was sparked last summer when Feuer and Councilman Marvin Braude teamed with Studio City attorney David Fleming to endorse the creation of a charter reform panel.

But after several council members expressed reservations about the plan, Fleming abandoned Feuer and teamed with Riordan to circulate a petition, asking voters to create an elected reform panel that has the power to put reform measures directly on the ballot. Riordan funded the petition drive with $400,000 from his personal wealth.

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Responding to Riordan’s efforts, the council created an appointed reform panel but retained the power to rewrite, reject or adopt reform measures proposed by the panel.

Riordan and Fleming have criticized the council’s panel, saying true reform cannot come from a group that is beholden to the council.

The council has criticized Riordan’s proposed panel, calling it a personally funded power grab.

Ridley-Thomas complains that Feuer handled the reform effort poorly and allowed it to get out of control. He said Feuer is still green and should have consulted with some of his colleagues before leading the reform effort.

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“I do not think he is a bad guy,” Ridley-Thomas said. “I think his policy posture, in terms of the implications and consequences of his proposals, are not fully thought out.”

Feuer’s defenders, however, say Ridley-Thomas, Holden and other members who have been in City Hall for years are simply resentful of a new member trying to take a leadership role.

Ridley-Thomas rejects such a suggestion. Instead, he says Feuer creates resentment because he implies that City Hall is corrupt when he calls for government and ethics reform.

“If the point is that he is trying to clean up local government, there is an implication, obviously, that you are saying that something is dirty,” he said.

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But the criticism that Feuer has been getting around City Hall does not seem evident among his constituents. Several community leaders say they support Feuer’s efforts to lead charter reform and limit officeholder spending.

“It’s better to be under attack from politicians than from constituents,” said Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Assn.

Diana Plotkin, president of the Westside Civic Assn., which includes 17 residential groups, said Feuer should not be blamed for trying to reform the charter.

She said several city leaders, including former Mayor Sam Yorty, have tried unsuccessfully to launch reform efforts.

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“If the council wants to blame anyone they should blame people who have been in office for 20 years who haven’t done anything to fix the charter,” she said.


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