City Councilman Joel Wachs, whose campaign for mayor is built largely around his image as a protector of the public purse, has spent more than $300,000 of taxpayer money on a pair of city service guides that critics believe are intended to expand his name recognition outside his district.
Wachs defended the guides as a valuable resource for city residents and said he is able to pay for them in part by holding down his other staff costs. "I'm very proud of these books," he said. "We have done what the city should be doing."
The guides, titled "Putting People First," are addressed to "Dear Friends" and offer extensive listings of city services and departments. Thousands were sent to voters across the length and breadth of Los Angeles--some within Wachs' district but many outside it as well. Those voters will decide next year on a successor to Mayor Richard Riordan, and Wachs is one of the leading contenders.
His name appears on the cover of both documents, printed next to a red, black and white version of the city seal.
One copy of the guide, which highlights neighborhood services and offers tips on everything from home repairs to services for the homeless, says it was "specially prepared for the benefit of residents of East, South and Central Los Angeles." Wachs represents none of those areas.
The other guide is targeted at senior citizens. In its introduction, the guide is described as "the most current and comprehensive . . . of its kind." Like the neighborhood pamphlet, it lists scores of phone numbers and offers brief descriptions of various services and offices.
Each of the guides runs more than 100 pages, and though they are legal, they have stirred considerable grumbling in the camps of the councilman's rivals. United in their annoyance, Wachs' opponents are split between those who consider the mailers an outrage and those who grudgingly admire Wachs for figuring out a way to launch a campaign blitz with public money.
"I think he's really playing with dynamite here," said Bill Carrick, the consultant advising City Atty. James K. Hahn's campaign. "He's staked this position as the council curmudgeon, scrutinizing every government expenditure. He runs the risk of this really backfiring on him."
Marty Stone, a campaign consultant for another mayoral candidate, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), echoed Carrick's remarks in milder terms. "I don't believe [Wachs] should have done this at this time," Stone said. "Not when he's a candidate."
As a congressman, Becerra is bound by federal rules that prohibit members of Congress from mailing outside their districts, Stone noted.
But those rules do not apply to city officials. Wachs' chief of staff, Greg Nelson, said the guides are good for the public and a worthy investment by the councilman.
"It's our gift to the city," Nelson said. "We love it."
Wachs agreed and stressed that the books are paid for with money that is allocated to every council member annually.
"Every council member gets exactly the same amount of money here," he said. "I watch my money carefully, so I can do this."
According to city officials, the guides this year cost $210,000 to print and $112,000 to mail. That's less than they would cost if handled privately, since the city gets special rates, so rival campaigns are even further annoyed that Wachs is getting a better deal than is available to them.
Ace Smith, consultant to businessman-mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff, said putting that much public money into a mailer with a candidate's name on the cover is indefensible.
"This guy's quickly becoming the Chuck Quackenbush of Los Angeles," Smith said, referring to the state's beleaguered insurance commissioner. "He should pay the money back."
That's not about to happen--in part because Wachs' office took special care before sending the mailers out to get them approved by the right city agency. And therein lies the final twist to the tale of the mailers.
The city's experts on appropriate uses of public funds reviewed the pamphlets and concluded that they met Los Angeles' criteria for such mailings. City rules limit an elected official to a single use of his or her name on such material--other than as part of the return address, Wachs' name appears just once--at the top of the cover page. As required, there are no pictures of the councilman, and the introductions are neutrally written--not attributed to him as the author.
That doesn't satisfy Hahn consultant Carrick. "If this is a good use of taxpayer money, then send it out without his name," Carrick said. "He put his name on it. It's clearly designed to promote Joel Wachs."
But although Carrick is unhappy, the people who granted their permission are lawyers in the city attorney's office.
Their boss: Jim Hahn.
"I put my name on it because I'm proud of it," Wachs said. "Bill Carrick's just jealous because his client approved it."