A tussle between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council over a proposal to boost downtown development has exploded into a power struggle that is expected to come into public view today at City Hall.
But even as the two sides prepare to face off, both are looking for a way to avoid a potentially embarrassing showdown that would further aggravate their already frayed relations.
At the center of the conflict is Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is pressing her colleagues to override Villaraigosa’s veto this week of their plan to sell 9 million square feet of unused “air rights” over the Los Angeles Convention Center. The plan was meant to further downtown’s residential boom by allowing developers to buy the vertical space and use it to expand projects beyond what zoning codes allow. The sale of these air rights would generate an estimated $200 million to pay for projects in and around downtown, such as affordable housing and parks.
Villaraigosa vetoed the plan because he said it would not give him an opportunity to review, and possibly reject, council decisions on air-rights deals.
Perry, who represents much of downtown, said she worried about giving Villaraigosa too much power over land-use decisions. But she also offered Villaraigosa an olive branch Thursday, suggesting in a letter to the mayor that he use his authority to review projects before they are submitted to the city Planning Commission or Community Redevelopment Agency board, whose members he appoints.
Perry needs 10 votes on the 15-member council for an override. Both she and Villaraigosa spent Wednesday and Thursday lobbying council members, with both sides voicing confidence.
“We’re an independent body,” Perry said.
Villaraigosa has argued that the council’s plan violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the City Charter, which he said gives the mayor a voice in such matters.
City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo weighed in Thursday, saying the City Charter does not provide the mayor an automatic review of council land-use decisions.
The mayor’s veto Monday was only his second since taking office 21 months ago.
“It’s a reasonable check and balance for the mayor to be directly included in the process,” Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg said. “The mayor believes that charter reform envisioned a mayor and a council sharing power as co-equals.”
The fight over the air-rights plan underscores the growing strain between the council and Villaraigosa, who until recently enjoyed a warm reception in the council chamber.
Some council members believe Villaraigosa made the council look bad last fall when he vetoed a $2.7-million settlement for a firefighter who was fed a spaghetti dinner laced with dog food by his colleagues. The council failed to override the settlement veto and endured significant public criticism for its handling of the matter.
Villaraigosa also has shown disrespect in other ways, council members say.
On Monday, several showed up at Los Angeles International Airport to celebrate the arrival of the new Airbus A380 jumbo jet. Tension mounted over whether they would be permitted to tour the plane with Villaraigosa and reporters. Some present said the misunderstanding was the result of pilots’ wanting to limit the number of visitors.
Villaraigosa’s spokesman said the mayor, a former councilman himself, believes in a strong and independent role for the council.
“He has a deep respect for the institution and for the individual members of the council,” Clegg said. “He does not cast a veto lightly.”
Councilman Greig Smith, who said he would support an override if compromise efforts failed, said the conflict over the air-rights plan could have been avoided if the mayor’s staff had been more proactive.
“The mayor and his aides didn’t communicate with us and forced us into a reactionary mode,” Smith said. “I think Ms. Perry is on the correct track here. It would help the economy.”
Councilman Herb Wesson said he too probably would vote to override the veto but hoped that a compromise could be worked out.
“I voted for it before, and at this juncture I am not inclined to change my position,” Wesson said. “When you look at the revenue it would generate -- we need to be creative.”
Councilman Dennis Zine had dinner with Villaraigosa on Wednesday night and left feeling convinced that the mayor had legitimate concerns.
“If Jan tries to override the mayor’s veto, it’s going to be a power struggle to see who has the votes,” Zine said.
“I don’t plan to override the mayor’s veto,” Zine said, “and I don’t think there are the votes to do that.”
One veteran City Hall observer said the conflict is an expected outgrowth of a city government that divides power and responsibility between executive and legislative branches.
“There is a natural tension between the mayor and council on issues,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political scientist who helped revise the City Charter, which he said gives the council special powers on planning issues.