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Hahn’s Clout Is at Stake in Budget Fight

Times Staff Writer

A month after releasing his $5.1-billion budget proposal, Mayor James K. Hahn is scrambling to rebuild regard for his political skills and reach a compromise that would leave the heart of his plan in place: a call for 320 additional police officers, paid for by increased fees.

Whether he will succeed is unclear. Though it has left open the possibility of an accommodation, the City Council showed last week that it has the votes to defeat the mayor’s spending plan by a veto-proof margin.

Hahn isn’t giving up, though he concedes that the council’s deep resistance to his budget was nothing he had foreseen.

“I thought the goal was to improve public safety,” he said in an interview. “The idea that we had suddenly lost faith in ourselves and couldn’t get through a difficult year came as a surprise to me.”

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That the mayor reached this impasse at the midway point in his term reflects a governing style that remains uneven, according to critics. Through what some council members and political observers portray as a series of missteps, Hahn’s camp picked unnecessary fights, misjudged the level of support for the budget and sent messages that were accusatory one week, conciliatory the next.

Even longtime allies abandoned Hahn in a budget debate that upended what for two years had been a smooth relationship with the City Council.

“You’d assume that someone advocating more police is going to look like the hero,” said political consultant Harvey Englander, whose clients have included Councilmen Hal Bernson and Nate Holden.

“But some of his closest friends are saying, ‘You’re going too fast. We have to step back here.’ I think the mayor took the council for granted because he’s had a very good two years,” Englander said. “But you can’t forget that each of these council members wants to make their own mark, and they’re not going to get run over.”

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When it was introduced, Hahn’s 2003-04 financial plan seemed a lock for passage. It was a budget that left little to chance -- the product of thousands of hours of work, aides said, condensed into three glossy briefing books. Though it called for raising city fees for the first time in years, it also would shore up the undermanned Los Angeles Police Department in a city struggling with violent crime.

It also was introduced at a time when Hahn’s political fortunes seemed secure. Few had predicted that he would have an easy time last year in ousting Police Chief Bernard C. Parks or defeating the secessionists. But Hahn prevailed in both fights, installing the popular William J. Bratton as chief and keeping L.A.'s boundaries intact. Passing a budget for next year, by contrast, seemed routine.

The mayor’s office would neither confirm nor deny that it polled residents to make certain the public would embrace the major themes. But a month before the budget came out, at least one San Fernando Valley resident -- Joel Fox, former president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. -- got a call from a pollster asking if he would support increases in trash, sewer and zoo fees, all of which would be raised in the proposal Hahn ultimately released.

For all the meticulous care that went into the budget, some council members said they were excluded. Briefings from the mayor came after the document had taken shape.

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Not Like Riordan

Hahn’s approach is a departure from that of his predecessor, Mayor Richard Riordan, whose council relations were never considered strong but who nevertheless visited council members in their offices in the months while the budget was being prepared, according to Councilman Nick Pacheco, a Hahn ally who heads the council’s Budget and Finance Committee. In those meetings, Riordan would ask the council members about their priorities for the coming year.

“That tradition hasn’t been followed with this mayor’s budget team,” Pacheco said. “I think if the tradition had been maintained

City financial analysts quickly released reports warning of shortfalls reaching $280 million next year. The mayor hadn’t mentioned the shortfalls in the limited private briefings he gave some members of the budget committee. Council members were alarmed. When they asked his aides to address the issue in budget hearings, they got nowhere.

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To the committee’s growing frustration, Hahn’s staff would say only that the budget before the council was balanced.

Hahn began meeting with council members to build support, but he was selective in whom he would see. Early on, he avoided calls to Councilmen Jack Weiss and Pacheco -- two important members of the budget committee who were upset about the looming shortfalls.

Hahn broke with a trusted ally, Council President Alex Padilla, when Padilla released a plan that called for a delay in hiring more officers until the city had a clearer idea of its financial future. An outraged Hahn sent a reply telling Padilla he was hindering public safety.

Meantime, Hahn was sending mixed signals. At one point he called a news conference to threaten to veto a budget that denied him the extra police officers. At another he invited council members to submit alternative proposals.

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“The question of what they can possibly be thinking has been asked several times. And no one can figure out the strategy,” Weiss said earlier in the debate.

Some analysts trace Hahn’s troubles to a difficulty in commanding the public stage. Without exploiting the persuasive powers of the office, according to this theory, the mayor risks losing ground to the council.

“Historically, it’s not even been close; the council has never been able to compete with the mayor for the public megaphone,” said Ben Austin, a deputy mayor under Riordan who worked for Hahn’s rival in the 2001 mayor’s race, Antonio Villaraigosa. Villaraigosa recently won election to the council and will take his seat in July.

“In the dust-up over the LAPD budget, the council walked away with a very clear victory,” Austin added. “And there are a lot of people who follow City Hall who are wondering if this signals a tectonic shift in power from the mayor’s office to a new, dynamic City Council.”

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For help, Hahn enlisted his handpicked police chief. The idea was to go over the council’s heads and appeal directly to the public. Hahn and Bratton gave radio interviews and appeared at joint news conferences, uniformed police officers arrayed smartly behind them.

Move Backfired

The move angered council members, however, and Bratton wound up apologizing for a radio interview in which he suggested that council members hadn’t visited the crime scenes that he, as chief, knows so well.

Hahn, for his part, took aim at the newest member of the council, going out of his way to demean Parks’ record as police chief.

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The council stood firm, voting 11 to 4 on Monday to slow the pace of police hires; it was a margin big enough to survive a veto. Englander, the political consultant, said that with Hahn having aides on his staff whose job it is to monitor the council, the vote should never have been what Hahn said it was: a surprise.

“I think the mayor is going to have to look very closely not just at his relationship with the council, but at his eyes and ears on the council: his staff,” Englander said. “He’s really going to need to give them better marching orders. While obviously the buck stops with him, he’s not getting good information.”

With a final vote expected in the next few days, Hahn has dropped the antagonistic stance. He is talking to everyone on the council -- Weiss and Pacheco included. He is pitching a compromise that would pare spending by 3% to mollify council members worried about projected shortfalls.

Asked about the budget fight recently, Hahn grimaced at the choice of the word “fight.”

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But for all the attempts at appeasement, the mayor made clear that on one point he wouldn’t budge.

“I’m committed to expanding LAPD,” he said, “and if the council doesn’t have that commitment, we’re going to have a disagreement.”

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Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

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