After 30 years on the Los Angeles City Council, Joel Wachs said goodbye Friday to his colleagues, who praised him as a voice of independence and integrity at City Hall.
Wachs is moving to New York City, where he will serve as president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Although he is leaving, the council maverick said he has great confidence in the future of Los Angeles.
"It's grown up," he said. "It's a great international city. It's the center of culture and commerce. It's the most diverse city in the world."
Wachs, 62, said he does not believe Los Angeles residents will vote to break the city into four municipalities, an idea proposed by secessionists that could appear on next year's ballot. He became further convinced that Los Angeles would remain intact, he said, on seeing how New York City residents united after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
"I think what happened in New York is an example of how people really do want to come together," he said. "If people haven't in the past, they might not have had the opportunity . . . or actually had obstacles. It's the fault of the system. The system has to change."
Wachs, who earned a reputation through the years as a taxpayers' watchdog, was often frustrated in his attempts to make City Hall less wasteful and more responsive. He frequently clashed with the council majority, including opposing the level of public funding first proposed for building Staples Center and hosting the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
"You have been someone who has been passionate about civil and human rights," said Mayor James K. Hahn, his one-time political opponent. "You care very deeply about this city. You fought for the rights of seniors. Everybody who was somebody who couldn't afford a lobbyist had the best lobbyist they could get because they had you on their side."
Wachs said the key to heading off secession and making city government relevant to its citizens will be a system of neighborhood councils that he proposed 10 years ago but is now just getting under way.
"The only thing that will really change [the bureaucracy] is an involved citizenry, and that will come through the neighborhood councils, the neighborhood form of government," Wachs said.
Wachs spent much of Friday's ceremony in the packed City Council chambers wiping tears from his eyes with a handkerchief. The decision to leave Los Angeles was bittersweet, he said. He was deeply disappointed by his fourth-place finish in this year's mayor's race, his third failed attempt to reach the city's highest office.
Wachs, who acknowledged publicly for the first time last year that he is gay, had hoped to lead the city into the next decade. Still, the avid art collector said he is excited to head one of the nation's most prominent foundations for the support of contemporary art.
He appeared especially touched when Councilwoman Jan Perry announced a proposal to name the intersection of 2nd Street and Grand Avenue in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art as "Joel Wachs Square."
Wachs' departure and the death earlier this year of veteran Council President John Ferraro have accelerated a shift in leadership at City Hall, where a new generation has taken over, aided by term limits. Six new council members were elected this year, and two more will be seated in coming months. A majority of the council soon will be relative newcomers.
Acknowledging the shift, new Council President Alex Padilla, 28, said Wachs was first elected before Padilla was born.
Councilman Hal Bernson, who becomes the council's senior member with 22 years of service, said Wachs may not always have agreed with his colleagues, but he won their respect: "I can't think of anybody who has served with more integrity and real feeling for the people he served than Joel."