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Consolidating a power base

David Zahniser and Maeve Reston

Over the last four years, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and two of his closest allies on the Los Angeles City Council have seen their political fortunes follow a steady upward trajectory.

As the mayor pushed plans for nearly tripling trash fees, hiring 1,000 new police officers, gaining control over the Los Angeles Unified School District and building a “Subway to the Sea,” two of his most unwavering supporters were Councilman Jack Weiss and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel.

Now, as Villaraigosa seeks reelection, the mayor’s two allies have launched campaigns for the other two citywide offices on the ballot, with Weiss running for city attorney and Greuel seeking to become city controller.

If all three win March 3, the Villaraigosa-Weiss-Greuel troika would usher in a major change in mood from the current environment at City Hall, where the three citywide-elected politicians have eyed each other warily.

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City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and City Controller Laura Chick have been battling in court over Chick’s push to audit a workers’ compensation program. Villaraigosa has vetoed at least two proposals from Delgadillo, who in turn has complained that the mayor’s efforts to cut his budget have threatened public safety.

The prospect of much closer ties between the three citywide elected officials has emerged as a campaign issue, with rival candidates warning that a victory for all three would leave City Hall without checks and balances over its three most powerful political posts.

“What you need is a lion at the gates, not a lap dog,” David Berger, a candidate for city attorney, said at a candidates forum. “And if you get Jack Weiss . . . you’ll get a rubber stamp for everything his best buddy, the mayor, wants him to do.”

In the controller’s race, challenger Nick Patsaouras offered a similar argument: “It’s very apparent that Wendy is part of the inner circle, which will cloud her judgment and compromise her independence,” he said.

Despite the criticism, the mayor and his two allies have pulled far ahead of their opponents in fundraising, collecting a combined $5.2 million so far.

The Los Angeles City Charter -- a governing document approved by voters in 1999 -- was designed specifically to ensure that each citywide office holder is a check on the other, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law.

“That’s why, for example, the elected commission rejected the idea of having an appointed city attorney,” said Chemerinsky, who was chairman of the elected charter reform commission. “They wanted the city attorney to be able to investigate the mayor and city controller.”

Greuel disputed the notion that she is a mayoral ally, calling herself an independent thinker who agrees with Villaraigosa when it makes sense and disagrees when it doesn’t. Greuel’s camp argued that Patsaouras is the true mayoral insider, since he attended Villaraigosa’s birthday party at the home of businessman Keith Brackpool last month.

Weiss, on the other hand, talked up his relationship with the mayor, arguing that a working relationship among the city’s elected officials can only be good for local government. “We’re all supposed to be pulling on the same oar in the same direction for the city,” he said.

Critics of City Hall said the mayor and the council have already been moving in lock step, giving too little scrutiny to a $3-billion solar energy plan, a recently approved decision to quadruple parking meter rates and a legal settlement that allows up to 840 billboards to be converted to a digital format.

The issue of checks and balances also has drawn strong interest from Chick, who spent eight years transforming the controller’s office into a political powerhouse with influence over policy decisions. Chick, who will be forced out by term limits June 30, used her office to issue scathing critiques of the Department of Water and Power, the Port of Los Angeles and Villaraigosa’s predecessor, former Mayor James K. Hahn.

Chick said last week that the three citywide office holders can and should work together. But she warned that if they have “true-blue friendships,” it will be far more difficult for them to carry out the duties of their offices -- particularly the city controller, whose job is to scrutinize government programs.

“You have to be able to criticize the person you’ve been friends with, and it’s difficult,” said Chick, who has not endorsed either candidate. “It’s very difficult to publicly criticize your buddy, your pal, the person who’s helped you get elected or the person you’ve been joined at the hip with at press conference after conference.”

Still, Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said that having the three citywide politicians work in tandem would be “unequivocally positive” -- allowing them to combat crime and address the city’s budget problems. “These are executive positions, and bickering and backbiting and infighting only delays progress,” he added.

Taking a side

Each of the four city attorney candidates running against Weiss has zeroed in on his close relationship with the mayor, which began shortly after Villaraigosa was elected to the City Council in 2003. Weiss sat next to him for two years, urging him repeatedly to run for mayor in 2005.

Weiss served as Villaraigosa’s attack dog throughout the campaign, lobbing accusations against then-Mayor Hahn in a way that let Villaraigosa appear above the fray. Villaraigosa and Weiss also have tapped many of the same well-heeled Westside contributors. The two men also retain the political consultant Ace Smith, a San Francisco-based opposition researcher known for digging up damaging information on candidates running against his clients.

Environmental lawyer Carmen “Nuch” Trutanich, one of the five city attorney candidates, said Weiss has fallen in line with the mayor on hot-button issues. In 2006, Weiss voted for a $2.7-million discrimination settlement for Tennie Pierce, the African American firefighter who was fed dog food without his knowledge during a station-house dinner. He switched his position after Villaraigosa vetoed the deal.

Trutanich also criticized Weiss for siding with the mayor on a congestion relief plan on the Westside. Weiss told nervous neighborhood groups he would proceed cautiously before changing traffic flow on Pico and Olympic boulevards. But when Villaraigosa announced a final plan for the two corridors, Weiss enthusiastically endorsed it.

Weiss said the mayor raised valid questions about the Pierce settlement. He said the Pico-Olympic plan -- which was halted temporarily when a judge ordered more environmental review -- would have served the city’s interests. And he argued that Los Angeles deserves a city attorney and mayor who keep a “confidential, respectful relationship.”

“There will be no competition between the mayor’s office and the city attorney’s office, and I will provide not just good advice, but good confidential advice so that the policymakers can make their decisions,” he said.

Ability to disagree

A similar debate can be heard in the city controller’s race. Like Trutanich, Patsaouras said Greuel and Weiss are part of a local political machine headed by the mayor.

Although Patsaouras was appointed by Villaraigosa to the panel that oversees the Department of Water and Power, he said he regularly disagreed with the mayor, particularly on issues surrounding the DWP’s employee union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18.

“I raised questions a number of times where [DWP union head Brian] D’Arcy got upset, and he would make his dissatisfaction known to the mayor’s office,” Patsaouras said. “The mayor’s office let me know that D’Arcy was unhappy. They didn’t say, ‘Nick, lay off.’ But they did say, ‘Get along with D’Arcy.’ ”

Greuel said she too has shown a willingness to disagree with the mayor, opposing his plan last year to delay payments into the city’s pension fund. She bristled at Patsaouras’ description of her as part of the inner circle, saying the comment is “a bit cynical” from someone who raised money for Villaraigosa’s 2005 mayoral campaign, served on his transition team and landed a plum seat on a city commission.

“He has been inside politics a long time,” she added.

Watching the debate with interest is attorney George Kieffer, who played a role in the creation of the 1999 City Charter. Kieffer, who endorsed Weiss and Greuel, warned that the city would not necessarily run better if its officeholders are enemies.

“It comes down to the character and integrity of the individuals,” he said. “I don’t think you can draw the conclusion that because politicians like each other and support each other, that they won’t do the appropriate thing when the time comes.”

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david.zahniser@latimes.com

maeve.reston@latimes.com

Times staff writer Phil Willon contributed to this report.


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