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Council Move to Retain Chief Seen as Unlikely

City Hall: Majority appears to oppose motion to override Police Commission. Some talk of severance offer.

March 18, 1997|JIM NEWTON and JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

On the eve of a scheduled vote that will decide Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams' fate, a majority of City Council members say they are inclined to support the city's Police Commission, clearing the way for the chief's ouster.

Bracing for that, sources said Monday that some officials have broached the idea of offering Williams a severance package, but added that no final deal has been struck. Options under consideration range from paying Williams about $60,000, roughly the salary owed him to the end of his term, plus money for moving expenses, unused sick days and the like.

At the upper end, sources said, is a proposal to pay the chief about $830,000. The larger sum, which some council members said they would vote against, would include money to pay his legal fees, two years worth of severance pay and a pension bonus. Both figures are considerably lower than the $3 million that one council member says he discussed with Williams' lawyers.

Through a Police Department spokesman Monday, Williams denied that he was discussing any plan to leave and said he intended to serve out his term, which runs to July 6.

One of his lawyers, Peter I. Ostroff, declined to discuss any details of offers that might be made to Williams, but confirmed that some council members have offered to seek some settlement with the chief.

"There are council members who have expressed . . . an interest in doing right by him," Ostroff said. He added that those council members also hope that the chief still could win reappointment to a second, five-year term, a move that could only occur if two-thirds of the council votes to take jurisdiction of the issue and then overturns the Police Commission.

The first formal test of council support for that course is scheduled to come today, when a vote is set on a motion from Councilwoman Rita Walters, who has asked her colleagues to assert their authority to review the Police Commission's conclusions. Even that could change, however, as the chief's supporters, sensing that they are short of a two-thirds majority, may pull back to give Williams more time to lobby.

Among other things, backers of the chief said they are considering a substitute motion that would invite police commissioners to appear before the City Council, but stop short of formally asserting council jurisdiction over the matter.

Williams and his supporters have urged the council to take charge of the issue, but others have warned that doing so could jeopardize the principle of civilian police oversight, an idea that Police Commission President Raymond C. Fisher has emphasized.

As of Monday, it appeared that nine council members--council President John Ferraro and Richard Alatorre, Joel Wachs, Laura Chick, Mike Feuer, Richard Alarcon, Rudy Svorinich Jr., Hal Bernson and Marvin Braude--were prepared to uphold the commission, some because they believe that Williams has done a poor job, others because they believe that the Police Commission deserves council backing as a matter of policy.

"I have no hesitancy at all with upholding the action of the Police Commission," said Braude, who has been a strong supporter of Williams but also has been a leading council backer of police reform efforts since the early 1990s. The reform movement, galvanized by the Christopher Commission, established stronger civilian control over the Police Department and its chief, a notion that Braude said he supports and that he believes the Police Commission has fulfilled.

Likewise, Chick, who heads the Public Safety Committee and who has long supported Williams, said she believes that the commission's action should stand.

"I have confidence that the Police Commission has undertaken its decision-making in a carefully deliberative, thorough manner," Chick said in a written statement. "The process that voters supported has worked and should be supported by all."

Alarcon joined his colleagues in saying he believed that the commission, which produced a 22-page document explaining the reasons for its decision, deserved to be upheld.

"I haven't seen anything that would change my mind," Alarcon said. "I still believe we ought to let the Christopher Commission process work. The Police Commission, I think, did a good job."

Some council members disagree.

Walters, Jackie Goldberg, Nate Holden and Mark Ridley-Thomas support having the council review the commission action.

"The council ought to review the matter," Ridley-Thomas said Friday. "It's too significant a matter to be left in the hands of a civilian board that is not accountable. We need to make sure that things have been done the way they ought to have been done."

*

Ridley-Thomas said that if the chief sues the city over his rejection, the council would have to get involved at that point.

"Ultimately it's going to come to us," he said. "It doesn't go to the commission if there's litigation; it doesn't go to the mayor's office; it goes to the council. If we're going to have to decide on it, we ought to do it with forethought."

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