As political appointees go, San Fernando Valley car dealer Bert Boeckmann is a survivor.
Despite his conservative politics and close ties to anti-establishment groups seeking to break up Los Angeles and the city school district, Boeckmann showed again last week that he remains a player in the liberal-leaning Los Angeles City Hall. New Democratic Mayor James Hahn picked him as the only member of the Police Commission to remain on the panel.
He served on the commission under Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley and Republican Mayor Richard Riordan, through the Rodney King beating and the Christopher Commission, right to today's Rampart Division scandal.
Even for a city in which municipal politics are supposed to be nonpartisan, the Republican power broker has demonstrated the ability to transcend party differences and find a place at the table of power at City Hall.
"He has credibility across a broad spectrum," said Anton Calleia, a former deputy mayor to the late Bradley. "He is an institution in the Valley. Everybody who has an idea for a public purpose goes to him for support."
Valley community activist Gordon Murley offered another reason for Boeckmann's success.
"M-O-N-E-Y," Murley said, spelling the word slowly for emphasis. "He has always given very big to politicians, and that has allowed him to be an insider."
Indeed, Boeckmann is one of the top political donors in the San Fernando Valley to local, state and federal candidates, doling out $628,000 in the last year and a half.
Boeckmann, 70, said he and his wife, Valley magazine Publisher Jane Boeckmann, gave more than $350,000 last year to campaign committees working to elect Republican George W. Bush president.
At the state level, his Galpin Motors Inc. contributed $213,656 to candidates and campaign committees last year, including $10,000 to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Locally, Boeckmann and his wife spread around more than $20,000 to candidates, including Steve Soboroff, Kathleen Connell and Antonio Villaraigosa in the Los Angeles mayoral primary. He also contributed to Hahn, and endorsed him in the runoff election.
Boeckmann, who has also been a financial supporter of the controversial Christian Coalition, is a self-made man.
He started out as a salesman for Galpin Ford in 1953, and later bought his employer. He then built a corporate empire in the Valley made up of vast land holdings and a film production company.
He is president and owner of Galpin Motors, whose five Valley car franchises tallied $600 million in sales on 25,000 vehicles last year, and include the top-selling Ford dealership in the world.
Boeckmann has exercised the prerogatives of power to satisfy a lifelong fascination with law enforcement.
"At one time, I thought I might make a career in the military," he said. "The police force is kind of a paramilitary organization."
In his spacious and ornately decorated office, which overlooks the showroom of his North Hills Ford dealership, the most prominent item on his boat-sized desk is a crystal LAPD service award.
He has remained a City Hall insider despite his financial backing of petition drives to study Valley cityhood and to break up Los Angeles Unified School District.
Close Link to LAPD Draws Criticism
Others criticize Boeckmann on his record at Parker Center, saying he is much too enamored of the police to be an effective watchdog.
Although police union President Mitzi Grasso praised Boeckmann's appointment, saying his support for law enforcement brings balance to the commission, others were disappointed.
"I certainly oppose his appointment," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
"He is part of the entrenched culture of the LAPD that we certainly need to change," Ripston said. "He has been in there for 14 years, through the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal. He has not been a strong advocate for reform."
Boeckmann initially opposed a court-imposed consent decree mandating post-Rampart reforms, saying the LAPD already was taking steps to make improvements.
He drew criticism last year for splitting from the commission majority when it found that the fatal police shooting of a frail homeless woman violated department policy.
The commission majority sided with the LAPD's inspector general in determining that Margaret Mitchell, 55, did not pose a deadly threat when she brandished a screwdriver at officers.
In a minority report, Boeckmann and Commissioner Raquelle de la Rocha said they found "the officers' perceptions of immediate threat were not unreasonable and that Officer [Edward] Larrigan's use of deadly force was within department policy."
He counts among his accomplishments spearheading a task force that made changes in deployment practices to improve response times and provide the Valley better services. He has been the commission's liaison with the department's anti-terrorist division.
A Northridge resident, Boeckmann demonstrated his independence four years ago when the Police Commission voted 4 to 1 to hire Bernard Parks as police chief. Boeckmann cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he favored former Valley Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker for the job.
Boeckmann stirred things up again last week when he voiced reservations about Hahn's proposal to allow officers to work a compressed schedule of 12 hours a day, three days a week. Hahn's pledge to support the 3-12 schedule played a role in his endorsement by the police union.
A day later, however, Boeckmann said he was willing to give the program a try. "The mayor made a commitment to 3-12 and on that basis, I would be inclined to say, 'Let's go ahead and see if we can make it work,' " Boeckmann said.
Hahn described his appointee as "an outstanding leader" for Los Angeles, who has independence and integrity.
"We may not agree on everything, on every issue," Hahn added. "I'm not looking for somebody who's going to be a yes man for me."
Hahn said he chose a recognized leader in the Valley so that area can continue to have a voice on the panel.
Many, including Ripston, see Boeckmann's appointment as payback for his help in winning Hahn votes in the Valley.
Boeckmann was the first person Valley VOTE Chairman Richard Close approached with the idea of petitioning for a study of Valley cityhood.
"For candidates in the Valley, he is the first person you go to for endorsements and financial support," Close said. "Unless he is for a proposal, it is not worth it to waste your time."
Boeckmann said he would be inclined to support secession if pending studies determine it is beneficial, and Los Angeles fails to improve its service to the Valley. He is also the leading supporter of efforts to break up the school district to create a Valley district, having contributed $20,000 last year to the effort.
Land Sale to City Raises Questions
Some critics say Boeckmann's ties to City Hall are already too close.
He has leased city land and sold cars to the city, but the biggest controversy arose when the City Council spent $2.4 million to help buy a 239-acre parcel from Boeckmann in Mandeville Canyon.
The deal was denounced by some neighbors as political favoritism. Critics said the city paid more than the land was worth to appease an influential donor, and the site was too unstable for development of luxury homes, as Boeckmann had threatened.
"He got $5 million, and millions more in tax write-offs, for a worthless piece of land," Murley said last week.
Boeckmann said he sold the land as a favor to city officials who wanted to preserve it as open space. He said he did not seek a role at City Hall for financial gain.
"I don't want anything personally," he said of his city appointment. "It has to do with my love for my country and wanting to make it a better place for my grandchildren."
Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this story.