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Chief's Backers Give Up Campaign to Save His Job

City Hall: Councilwoman Walters pulls motion to overturn panel's decision, conceding lack of support. Focus turns to working out a severance package for Williams.

March 20, 1997|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams' final bid for a second five-year term died Wednesday, as his supporters switched gears from trying to save his job to working out a deal to pay him off in return for his early departure.

Conceding that she lacked the votes to win, City Councilwoman Rita Walters quietly withdrew her motion to overturn the Police Commission's decision to curtail the popular chief's tenure, replacing it with one asking the city's employment relations committee to ease the transition to a new top cop.

"It just seemed like an exercise in futility. It doesn't help the chief--it could be embarrassing to the chief to have the vote," Walters said. "The votes simply weren't there."

Technically, a council member could reintroduce a motion to overturn Williams' ouster Friday, but lawmakers said that is highly unlikely.

"It's over," said Councilman Nate Holden, the chief's most vocal backer. "We have a weak council that's dominated by the mayor here today. It's rather gutless. They crawled into their hole and just refused to vote."

Williams' future now lies in the hands of a five-member committee composed of his nemesis, Councilman Richard Alatorre, the mayor, two of the council's most conservative members--John Ferraro and Joel Wachs--and Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who has been one of the chief's solid but relatively silent supporters.

At a closed-door session today, the committee will request a report from city staff outlining options for a transition, delaying "substantive discussion" and a decision until a later meeting, said Council President Ferraro, who heads the panel to which the issue was referred.

Holden said he will try to wrest the decision from the Executive Employment Relations Committee, which he called "a stacked deck," but Ferraro is unlikely to agree.

The last word on any severance package must ultimately come from the full 15-member council. Unlike the two-thirds vote needed to overturn the commission's decision, a financial settlement requires only eight votes.

Some police commissioners and council members want Williams to leave before his term expires July 6 because the chief has already become a lame duck, lacking support from his bosses and subordinates.

Sources at City Hall say that during private meetings with lawmakers this week, the chief has indicated that he would like two years' pay, a pension bonus and money to pay off his legal debts. Initial estimates put that package at $830,000, but a deal closer to $750,000 would probably satisfy the chief.

The council consensus, however, seems to be $100,000 to $150,000, which would pay the chief's salary through July 6, plus some moving and legal expenses.

"On Monday, I was willing to consider a much higher number," one council member confided. "Now it's going down."

Months ago, before the chief even applied for a second term, sources close to Mayor Richard Riordan indicated that he would support a buyout of up to $250,000. On Wednesday, deputy to the mayor Stephanie Bradfield said Riordan "does not have a magic number" and would follow the council's lead on a settlement.

City Councilman Mike Feuer said he is "very skeptical of any arrangement that would go beyond July 6 in terms of a financial agreement." Alatorre and Wachs have said they are opposed to any buyout.

"I think the chief wants to leave early, and it gives the department an opportunity to start moving again . . . that's his biggest bargaining chip," Alatorre said. "Whatever eight votes can get you is going to be a reasonable figure--it's not going to be $700,000."

Holden, however, said the chief should pursue his case in court, not City Hall.

"Has he been damaged? Has he been wronged? If he has, then we're liable," he told reporters. "I'm not going to say anything about any dollars. All I want is to have the guy around for another five years. I think a reasonable settlement should be settled by a court."

Peter I. Ostroff, one of the chief's attorneys, declined to say whether Williams would file a lawsuit. "In the next day or two, there will be some developments from our side," he said. "I think you'll hear more this week."

Williams' lawyers recently showed a number of city officials a claim that they had drafted in which they laid out possible grounds for a lawsuit. Among other things, the document accused Riordan of interfering with Williams' ability to manage the LAPD, and charged that the commission had improperly evaluated the chief's performance.

Regarding Wednesday's decision, Ostroff said the chief was "disappointed but not surprised."

State Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), a mayoral candidate who endorsed Williams' bid for a second term, said he was dismayed not only by the council's decision, but also by its refusal to take public comments from him and dozens of others who had asked to speak.

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