Santiago Perez and his neighbors went straight to Councilman Eric Garcetti when they heard that a developer planned to build a 62-unit housing and retail development on their quiet street in Echo Park.
Worried that the four-story complex would tower over homes and bring excess traffic, the group emerged from their meeting at Los Angeles City Hall feeling relieved. “He told us that, yes, he’s with us and he will do everything possible to reject the plan,” Perez said.
But months later in front of the citywide Planning Commission, a Garcetti representative offered the lawmaker’s tacit support for the project, saying it was “designed well” and would bring needed jobs and housing to the area.
Perez and his neighbors felt blindsided. “He said one thing and then he did another,” Perez said. One of his neighbors fired off an angry message via Twitter: “Eric Garcetti went back on his word.”
If Garcetti succeeds in his bid to become L.A.'s next mayor, he will face new pressure to take decisive action on hotly contested issues. A number of colleagues and constituents say he has not always been a steadfast ally and decision maker.
Another mayoral front runner, Wendy Greuel, alluded to that allegation in a recent appearance before city workers, saying they need someone who will “be true to their word.”
Garcetti insists he never wavers from a promise. In nearly 12 years in office, he has made decisions that have upset some people, he acknowledged. But the vast majority of people he has worked with have had positive experiences, he said.
He said that he never committed to fighting the Echo Park development and that he “reserves the right” to take his time forming a position on an issue. “I listen to a lot of people to make sure I’m as well-informed as possible up until the last hour,” he said.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who has served alongside Garcetti for more than a decade, said Garcetti too often tests the political winds before taking a stand. Parks, who is backing Councilwoman Jan Perry’s bid for mayor, alleges that Garcetti misled him last year by voting for a controversial redistricting plan after indicating he opposed it. Garcetti also undermined the city’s efforts to hold down costs of employee union contracts, Parks said.
“I think he doesn’t want to make an enemy of anyone,” Parks said.
Garcetti said that he never told Parks he would oppose the redistricting plan and that the tough stance he took with the unions is “the reason I don’t have [them] lining up behind me.”
Questions of Garcetti’s reliability arose for Marc Galucci, who went to the councilman for support in turning his Echo Park cafe into a restaurant serving beer and wine.
Galucci assembled neighbors to back his application for a liquor license for Fix Coffee, but parents of some children at a nearby school opposed it.
Galucci said Garcetti told him that he would remain neutral but offered suggestions on how to gain community support. Then, at 10 p.m. the night before the liquor license hearing, a Garcetti representative phoned. “Tomorrow at the hearing we’re going to oppose this,” she said.
“I was just flabbergasted,” said Galucci. He later learned that Monica Garcia, president of the Board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, had asked Garcetti to oppose the request.
In the end, Galucci got the license, but he said the situation left him with a bad taste.
Garcetti acknowledged that the issue had been “a contentious one,” but he said he had not pledged to remain neutral. He said that he initially liked the idea of a liquor permit for Fix but that community opposition “continued to grow and grow.”
Former Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who has endorsed Garcetti, said that it’s important to be flexible but that avoiding a strong stand can leave the wrong impression. “I do know that he is a person who tries to make people happy, and when you do that, people hear what they want to hear,” she said.
On the campaign trail, Garcetti often touts his strengths as a consensus builder. Some current and former colleagues say his desire to find a compromise can be a weakness when consensus isn’t possible.
Former City Councilman Greig Smith recalled a 2010 struggle in which the Department of Water and Power and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sought to raise rates to a level the council thought inappropriate. On the day of the vote, Garcetti and Perry appeared before the DWP commission to say the council would not support the plan.
When Garcetti returned to the council for a late-night hearing, he urged his colleagues to rethink the rate hike, according to Smith, who is supporting Perry. Smith said that before Garcetti had a chance to persuade his colleagues to reconsider the hike, Smith pushed through a vote to table it.
Garcetti disputes the account, saying he did not seek reconsideration.
In the wake of the DWP fight, Garcetti backed a successful ballot measure to create the Office of Public Accountability intended to scrutinize the utility. Jack Humphreville, an activist who has long complained about high salaries at the city-owned utility, said Garcetti’s office at first seemed to support a multimillion-dollar budget for the office and broad powers for a ratepayer advocate.
Garcetti later allowed the ballot measure to be “neutered” after pressure from the utility workers union, Humphreville said. The ratepayer advocate’s powers were reduced and its granted funding was cut.
“Eric agreed to all this stuff, and then he started backpedaling on us,” Humphreville said.
Garcetti disagreed, saying the office has substantial powers.
Nick Patsaouras, a former DWP board member, said that he also was disappointed by the final measure but that Garcetti’s concessions probably kept it from “being killed” entirely by labor advocates.
“I think Eric did well, considering,” he said.