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Arena Foe Scores Points as Colleagues Cry Foul

City Hall: Joel Wachs plays fiscal watchdog again. Critics say mayoral bid is behind effort.


Joel Wachs is at it again.

The veteran Los Angeles councilman, who has earned a reputation as City Hall's most tenacious fiscal watchdog, has sunk his teeth into what he says is another example of government waste.

But unlike previous cost-cutting crusades, such as his efforts to consolidate city warehouses or modernize an antiquated purchasing system, this holy war has put him at odds with some of the city's most powerful business leaders and his closest allies in City Hall.

Wachs has become the harshest critic of a plan to use up to $70 million in public funds to help build a $300-million state-of-the-art sports arena for the Kings hockey and Lakers basketball teams near the city's struggling Convention Center. He supports construction of a new arena but doesn't want taxpayers to subsidize the project.

"I represent lower- and middle-income constituents and I'll be damned if they should pay for something they can never benefit from," he said, referring to the luxury box seats at the sports arena.

It appears his dogged efforts have paid off. Hours after he announced a ballot initiative to give voters the power to decide whether public funds should be used on sports projects, the arena developers offered a guarantee that all of the city's contributions to the deal would be refunded.

Because of the guarantee, Wachs is now considering exempting the sports arena from the initiative.

Still, his crusade has generated some stinging criticism even from some of Wachs' normally collegial colleagues. And critics are not hiding behind anonymous quotes.

"It's part of his ongoing effort to set up his mayoral campaign," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who believes the arena project will revitalize a depressed neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. "I think he thinks he has an issue that resonates with the people."

Not so, says Wachs. "People who rely on that charge simply don't have a good defense against my arguments against the arena deal," he said.

Wachs, a Harvard-educated tax attorney, has been a fiscal conservative since he took office in 1971. But he began in earnest to fill the role as City Hall's watchdog in 1986 when his district was redrawn to include working-class communities in Van Nuys and North Hollywood and conservative voters in Sun Valley.

From then on, Wachs said he began trying to see government spending decisions through the eyes of constituents who can barely make ends meet. Indeed, in the past few years, Wachs has embarked on a series of high-profile battles, calling for an end to frivolous spending by the city.

Because of his efforts, Council President John Ferraro gave Wachs the chairmanship of the council's Government Efficiency Committee in 1995.

But even the amiable Ferraro--who has a reputation for being the council's most diplomatic member--has lashed out at Wachs, calling his efforts against the arena a blatant attempt to get publicity.

"He's been known to do this in the past: take populous issues and bleed them," Ferraro said.

Ridley-Thomas, Ferraro and other supporters of the arena say Wachs' crusade has threatened to scare off a much needed money-making venture for downtown Los Angeles.

"When did making money become a bad thing for Joel?" Ridley-Thomas asked.

One city official suggested that because Wachs has been in council for 26 years his fight against L.A.'s power brokers may be an attempt to distance himself from the image as a entrenched City Hall insider.

Even Mayor Richard Riordan, who has teamed up with Wachs on several of his previous cost-cutting efforts, has called his latest campaign ill conceived.

One top Riordan official, more blunt, said: "What we have seen is the start of Wachs' mayoral campaign."

Wachs concedes that he had his eye on the job of mayor. He has run unsuccessfully for the post twice, most recently in 1993, when he came in a surprisingly strong third behind Riordan and then-Councilman Mike Woo. But he insists that his battle against the arena is not driven by his political ambitions.

As for the criticism, Wachs said he is used to personal attacks from people who disagree with him.

"If I'm going to worry about making everybody happy, I can't get anything done around here," he said.

Despite the harsh criticism he is getting in City Hall, several political pundits say Wachs' battle with the arena deal can only help his chances if he decides to run for mayor in 2001.

"No one ever voted against someone for being a watchdog," said Larry Levine, a veteran political consultant.

Levine and other pundits say voters are likely to feel that Wachs is sincere about saving tax dollars because he has a history of being a fiscal conservative.

"I think it's his persona, it's his thing," said Steve Afriat, another consultant and City Hall lobbyist. "I think clearly Joel is passionate about this."

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