Ernani Bernardi, a maverick politician known for battling government waste, hamstringing the city’s controversial redevelopment agency and writing some of Los Angeles’ landmark political reform laws during his 32 years on the City Council, died Wednesday. He was 94.
Bernardi died at his home in Van Nuys of apparent heart failure, according to his son John.
The onetime big-band saxophonist retired from the council in July 1993 after serving eight terms -- the second-longest tenure after former council President John Ferraro’s 35 years in office. Bernardi quit after making an unsuccessful run for mayor, at age 81.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised the former councilman as a “dedicated public servant and Los Angeles legend.”
“His ethical standards were beyond reproach, and throughout his life he advocated for the people of Los Angeles with intelligence and determination,” the mayor said in a statement.
Councilman Alex Padilla, who represents Bernardi’s old northeast San Fernando Valley 7th District, said his predecessor was for years “the conscience of the council.”
Bernardi represented his district with fierce independence and was widely regarded as the naysayer of City Hall because of his curmudgeonly “no” votes against projects he considered wasteful, tinged with political cronyism or overly bureaucratic.
He often demanded debate on items that other members wanted to pass without discussion.
“The thing about Ernie is he was absolutely unpretentious,” said former Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who served with him on the council and the California Coastal Commission. “He told you exactly what he thought, even if he did not always agree with everyone.”
Taxpayers were better for his service, according to those who knew him.
“He probably saved the city millions of dollars over the years with his questioning,” the late council President John S. Gibson Jr. once said.
Bernardi, short, bald and bespectacled with a puckish sense of humor, relished his role as the maverick.
“I think I can take credit for the council questioning things,” he once said. “When I joined the council in 1961, things were pretty routine. Council meetings lasted for only about 20 minutes. Things passed without question.”
He was a contrary and unpredictable loner, one given to berating his colleagues in public and unwilling to cut political deals -- and thus rarely a political force. Nonetheless, he had his share of victories.
He wrote a 1985 voter-approved law limiting campaign contributions in city races.
After working unsuccessfully for a decade to persuade his colleagues to adopt curbs on the flow of money from special interests into campaign coffers, Bernardi joined forces with the League of Women Voters and a rag-tag group primarily consisting of retirees from his district.
They gathered 128,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. It was approved overwhelmingly.
But when voters adopted even tougher restrictions on campaign financing a few years later, Bernardi sued unsuccessfully to block the measures because they included public financing of campaigns, which he opposed.
He also led successful campaigns to limit city pensions and wages.
Along with former Councilman Joel Wachs, Bernardi championed the city’s rent-control law. He also sponsored a law requiring City Hall lobbyists to disclose who they are working for; a 1973 “truth in real estate” ordinance making sellers of property disclose liens and zoning restrictions; and a 1974 law mandating that developers of five or more units set aside 15% of those for low- and moderate-income families.
And as the council’s leading critic of the Community Redevelopment Agency, he successfully sued to place a cap on spending for downtown renewal.
Bernardi was not without critics. A union leader once said, “He can sometimes be a shrill, cantankerous little guy ... a knee-jerk negative vote for no good reason at all.”
The councilman once cast the only vote against a lighthearted proposal to allow reindeer-drawn sleighs to land on rooftops. “I don’t think we ought to play jokes with ordinances,” he harrumphed.
But this too was the compassionate man who unlocked the City Hall kitchen one Christmas to personally cook beans for the homeless.
He was also the only councilman to vote against a plan to increase security at City Hall, including the installation of “electronic surveillance equipment” in halls. “I just resent the fact that we have to lock ourselves in,” he said.
In the spring of 1989, Bernardi survived the toughest challenge of his political career to win reelection to his 7th District.
After being put in a largely new, heavily Latino district by the 1986 council reapportionment, he was forced into a runoff against Lyle Hall, a former firefighters union president. Bernardi survived the battle but vowed that it would be his last.
At age 81, he jumped into the mayor’s race in the spring of 1993, largely to use it as a soapbox to rail against his favorite target -- the Community Redevelopment Agency. He finished far back in the field.
Even after retiring from office, Bernardi remained active in city politics, sponsoring a petition drive to block expansion of some downtown redevelopment projects.
In 2000, when he was 89, the former councilman signed on to a ballot argument opposing a $532-million bond measure to build fire stations and animal shelters. He cited the city’s failure at that point to have delivered on a promised police station in his district.
Despite health problems that had him in and out of the hospital, Bernardi led an active life in his later years. On Nov. 17, 2001, at age 90, the widower married Eve Troutman, 88.
His wife said Thursday that her husband stayed on top of civic affairs and kept up his music until the end.
On the day he died, he woke up and “read the newspaper as he always does,” before having breakfast and then playing some tunes on his alto saxophone.
“He lived every day to the fullest,” said Eve Troutman Bernardi.
She and a caretaker discovered Bernardi not breathing and sprawled on a couch in the den about 4 p.m.
His son John noted that his father had three successful careers: as a councilman, musician and building contractor. “Not many people can say that,” he said. “He was a remarkable man.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Ernani Bernardi was born in the living quarters of a small grocery store his family owned in Standard, Ill. He was raised by his grandmother and father, who taught him how to play the saxophone.
Performing under the name Noni Bernardi, he was a smooth-toned lead alto sax player during the 1930s with such big-band leaders as Benny Goodman and Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Bernardi wrote the arrangements for Tommy Dorsey’s recording of “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and Goodman’s popular “And the Angels Sing.” He came to California in 1940 with Kay Kyser’s “Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” which offered a potpourri of music and gags.
In the late 1940s, Bernardi turned to custom-home construction.
His first attempt to win a seat on the council in 1957 failed.
But when the incumbent, James Corman, was elected to Congress in 1961, Bernardi tried again and succeeded.
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by three other children from his previous marriage, Joanne Kent, Judith McRae and James Bernardi; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Lucille, to whom he was married for 59 years, died in October 1993.
Funeral arrangements are pending.