With less than a month before the March 8 election, Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks squared off with two rivals at a fiery debate Saturday where he was accused of neglecting the needs of constituents in his sprawling South Los Angeles district while taking home more than $440,000 annually from his pension and his council salary. The former police chief waved off those charges, arguing that neither of his opponents had the experience to lead the city in the midst of a budget crisis.
In the packed auditorium of Angeles Mesa Elementary School, labor-backed candidate Forescee Hogan-Rowles said Parks had been allowed to "double-dip" by collecting a pension of about $265,000 from his former job as police chief and accepting the $178,789 salary earned by council members. She also argued that Parks' contentious relationship with the city's police union had led to slower police response times for residents and said she would do a better job getting funding for services like sidewalk and pothole repair.
"This district has suffered long enough," said Hogan-Rowles, a former Department of Water and Power commissioner who heads a nonprofit financial services firm based in South Los Angeles. "We've put up with disconnectedness with our City Council office. We've put up with streets that aren't kept … and we've put up with lackluster performances in terms of economic development. It is time that we take a stand."
Parks, cool and virtually expressionless as he listened to her criticisms, repeatedly challenged her knowledge of the district and the severity of the city's budget crisis. He also reeled off a long list of accomplishments since he was elected, among them: the trimming of 12,000 trees, the refurbishment of park facilities such as exercise tracks, the addition of grocery stores and sit-down restaurants, and the passage of a law that bars residents from being evicted if their home is foreclosed.
"We've achieved what they asked us to do," he said, noting that a Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce survey showed the 8th District posted the greatest job growth between 2007 and 2009 of the city's 14 districts.
City firefighter Jabari Jumaane, the third candidate, was often sidelined in those exchanges, but said he was running because "the average working-class person needs a voice."
Though Hogan-Rowles had raised less than $25,000 at the time of the last filing period, her race with Parks has become more competitive because of her considerable support from the city's labor unions. Independent committees formed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, which represents some 8,600 DWP workers, have spent more than $254,000 to support her candidacy. Parks, who is seeking a third term, raised more than $131,000 through late January, but little has been spent on his campaign through independent expenditures.
Hogan-Rowles, whose father was a longtime DWP employee, has welcomed labor's support. She said budget cuts, furloughs and layoffs have unfairly targeted city employees.
Parks argued that it was impossible to resolve the city's $350-million budget deficit without dealing with those areas: "The workforce, the pension, the medical plan and the worker's comp are not sustainable," he said Saturday. "You can cut everything else in the city budget and still can't fix the budget crisis."
Defending her finance credentials, Hogan-Rowles noted that "last I checked Department of Water and Power didn't have a budget crisis."
"The reason the DWP doesn't have a budget problem is they've raised your rates significantly and are now asking for billions of dollars more," Parks said.
"When you look at your water bill, just remember her name, and remember the increase that you've had," he added. Hogan-Rowles said that even with the rate increase, the city has the lowest water rates in the state.
In some of the most piercing exchanges, Parks mocked Hogan-Rowles' understanding of the city's budget process, which he oversees as a committee chairman.
At one point, Hogan-Rowles claimed that Parks' strained relationship with DWP was to blame for street lighting issues in the district. If "you've been attacking them for eight years, they're likely not going to come over and fix things," she said.
"I am absolutely amazed that a commissioner from Water and Power doesn't know that Water and Power doesn't deal with street lights," Parks replied icily, as his supporters laughed and clapped.
At another juncture, Hogan-Rowles accused Parks of doing nothing to rehabilitate a community facility that had been part of a DWP site near the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
"The reason that the 8th District did not get involved in the burned-up DWP site — and part of a council job is to know your district — is it's in the 10th district," Parks replied.