Although Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson is banned by term limits from seeking reelection, the candidates to take over his seat piled criticism on the incumbent during their first debate Tuesday, saying his successor will have to deal with crime and overdevelopment in the San Fernando Valley district in a way that Bernson failed to do.
The attacks on Bernson were part of a debate full of spirited exchanges between high-profile candidates, including school board member Julie Korenstein, former Assemblywoman Paula Boland, businessman Robert Vinson and Greig Smith, who is on leave of absence as Bernson's chief of staff. Businessman Walter Prince and teacher/businessman Norman Huberman also participated as candidates for the 12th District seat.
Many of the criticisms of Bernson were also meant for Smith, who is the leading fund-raiser in the race and is endorsed by the incumbent. But even Smith distanced himself from his boss.
"We are replacing a councilman who has been there for 24 years, and it is time for a change. It is time for new ideas, new vision and new energy," Smith said before detailing the community service he has performed away from Bernson's office, including chairmanship of a local YMCA.
At one point, when Korenstein accused Smith of being involved in a Bernson controversy, a frustrated Smith retorted, "I'm not the councilman of the district."
The debate was hosted by Adelphia Communications executive Bill Rosendahl and will be aired on the company's cable systems in Los Angeles.
Some of the sharpest exchanges took place over the planned expansion of Sunshine Canyon Landfill into Granada Hills. Although the portion of the dump in Los Angeles was closed for several years by the city, the City Council has voted to allow it to reopen.
Addressing Smith, Vinson said, "In the last 20 years since Hal has been in office and you have been his chief of staff, the dump has only gotten larger."
Smith responded, "Obviously you forgot because you moved out of the district for a long time, but we actually did close Sunshine Canyon for many years. I was there for that fight."
Smith then criticized Boland for taking $5,000 in campaign contributions several years ago from landfill operator Browning-Ferris Industries. Boland said she took the contribution during a tough campaign for the state Senate, but has consistently voted against BFI.
Several candidates also faulted Bernson for supporting a housing development and zoning change that some Chatsworth residents feel undermine the rights of horse owners in the area.
"The people of Chatsworth are really feeling like ... they are not being heard by their council representative, their current representative's office, at all," Boland said.
On the issue of crime, Boland, Korenstein and others said the Los Angeles Police Department needs more officers, with Boland saying the current City Council has failed to act on the problem for years.
Responded Smith, "That's the answer of someone who doesn't understand policing work." He said the problem is not just the number of officers, but how they are deployed. Smith said there are fewer officers assigned to the 64 square miles of the Devonshire Division in the northwest Valley than to the five square miles of the Rampart Division, resulting in slower response times in the Valley.
Huberman and Korenstein called for more vocational programs to help keep young people from turning to crime, while Vinson said he supports the Police Department's use of computer analysis to pinpoint crime problems and more effectively deploy officers.
Many of the candidates said their own experience gives them the edge.
Huberman said his work as a businessman and teacher helps him understand district problems.
"I'm the 'un-politician' of the group," he said.
Prince cited his experience as a director of the Northridge Chamber of Commerce and as someone who is trying to form a neighborhood council. Those undertakings, he said, have helped him understand issues affecting businesses and residents.
"Our own councilman in the 12th District has said three or four times he is not going to pay attention to the neighborhood councils," Prince said, contending that Bernson prefers to work with handpicked advisory community councils that are "toothless."
Bernson, who did not attend the debate, said later that he was untroubled by the criticism. "These are people who are just desperate and trying to get some attention," he said. "I stand by my record."