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Los Angeles Elections

Key Police, Fire Bond Issue Trails in Early Returns

Services: Measure touted as essential for emergency response forces is backed by majority but lacking the necessary two-thirds margin.

April 14, 1999|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A massive police and fire bond measure touted by Los Angeles leaders as essential to rebuilding and expanding the city's emergency response forces was trailing in early returns Tuesday night.

Although a majority of voters were casting ballots in favor of the bond, it requires a two-thirds margin to win, and it was falling short of that in the early count.

Worried about the effects of what appeared to be low turnout, Mayor Richard Riordan scrambled throughout the day to avoid the measure's defeat, using his various appearances throughout election day to stump for the measure, which would pay for $744 million in new and replacement fire stations, police stations and other facilities, including a new police headquarters downtown.

As early returns came in, Riordan held out hope that Proposition 1 would win.

"Most of the votes we're seeing now are absentee," Riordan said. "I think we'll do better as the rest of the ballots come in. I just hope that the people who went to the polls voted for improved public safety and emergency response."

Private polling conducted in the weeks leading up to the vote showed a race too close to call, with about 68% of respondents saying they supported the proposal, which needs 67% backing to win because the bond issue would force residents to pay higher taxes. Those polls showed strongest support for the Fire Department portion of the measure, with LAPD projects backed less enthusiastically.

But low turnout can confound polling predictions, generally giving the edge to forces opposing new spending, because the most reliable voters tend to be older and more conservative than those who vote less often.

Trying to counteract that, bond supporters waged a last-minute, targeted, get-out-the vote effort in which likely Riordan supporters received taped messages at home with the mayor urging them to go to the polls.

The returns from mail-in ballots and the first batch of precincts had the proposition winning a solid majority but falling short of the two-thirds margin required for approval. As more polling stations began to report, the measure's numbers began to creep up slowly.

Support for the bond issue was led by the top tier of city officials, including Riordan, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and Fire Department Chief William Bamattre. The proposal was endorsed by The Times and the Daily News. Even some advocates of San Fernando Valley secession supported the measure, saying that improved public safety is important even if the Valley ultimately breaks away from the rest of Los Angeles.

Riordan campaigned hard for the measure. Last week, he used his State of the City address to champion it, and made appearances in Los Feliz and the Valley supporting it. On Saturday, he flipped pancakes with Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) at a Fire Department breakfast in Hollywood, where both officials urged several hundred people to turn out Tuesday and vote for the bond issue.

By contrast, opposition to the measure was widely dispersed and not well organized. The only group to announce formal opposition, in fact, was an organization of Valley residents who argued that they should not be asked to shoulder bond debt at a time when they are trying to split off from the city.

That group, No Bonds Now, accused City Hall of trying to pile on debt in order to complicate secession, a charge that city officials called ridiculous. In addition, bond opponents said they do not believe that city officials have effectively made the case for the new projects that would be paid for by the bonds.

"Admittedly, the secession issue is a factor here, but if [the bond issue] had been smaller and more clearly linked to specific Valley projects, maybe many of us would have supported it," said United Chambers Chairman Ross Hopkins, a member of No Bonds Now. "I feel bad about opposing this, because there really is a need, but they did a terrible job of developing support for this."

Riordan and other city officials felt otherwise.

In speech after speech, the mayor emphasized that he supported the bond issue because it was targeted at an important need and because it came equipped with "strong accountability mechanisms."

Specifically, he argued that the measure's list of projects and priorities would force city officials to spend the money exactly as designated. In years past, the city has squandered bond money, underestimated the cost of key projects and fallen behind on building facilities as promised. The combined results have been wasted bond money.

This time, however, Riordan and others promised that things would be different.

Moreover, they said the money was badly needed to bring city emergency services up to speed, whether Los Angeles remains a single city or splits into two. Even if they end up apart from the rest of the city, Riordan said, many Valley residents will continue to work in Los Angeles.

"People from the Valley go to restaurants here, they come to the theater here," he said. "They'll still do that no matter what."

As a result, he said, it is in the interests of all residents to support improved emergency services. After all, quicker emergency response time saves lives at work just as it does at home, said Riordan, who is extremely popular in the Valley.

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