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Festering Council-Mayor Tensions Erupt Into Open

City lawmakers say they feel excluded by Hahn. His aides say there is no deep fissure.

June 06, 2003|Matea Gold, Peter Nicholas and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

In July 2001, incoming Mayor James K. Hahn stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall and promised to forge a better relationship with the City Council than that of his predecessor, Richard Riordan.

"As mayor, I'm not going to head an isolated, separate branch of government," Hahn said on the muggy summer morning of his inauguration. "I will listen to the city's elected officials because they, too, speak for the people."

Two years later, strife between the mayor and the council has spilled out into the open, culminating in a sharp split over next year's budget. Council President Alex Padilla and Councilman Nick Pacheco, two of Hahn's most loyal allies, voted against the mayor again Wednesday and called his financial plan irresponsible. At one point the mayor's sister, Councilwoman Janice Hahn, suggested that he and the council needed marriage counseling.

Hahn's failure to persuade the council to back his budget reflected more than a difference in approach to the city's finances, several council members said. The chasm between the mayor and the council came about after months of discontent among council members, many of whom complain that they have felt marginalized and excluded by the Hahn administration.

"It's been common knowledge inside City Hall that the relationship between the mayor's office and the council offices has not been running smoothly for the last year or so," Pacheco said Thursday.

After the council's vote Wednesday to override Hahn on the expansion of the Police Department -- resisting weeks of political pressure from the mayor and the police chief -- some analysts say Hahn must now recalibrate his approach toward the 15-member body in order to advance his agenda at City Hall.

For Hahn to ignore the council, or to assume that it will offer unquestioned support for his goals, is the sort of mistake that Gov. Gray Davis made in his first term when he announced that the role of the Legislature was to implement his vision, said political consultant Harvey Englander.

Hahn "and his staff have to really understand that the way to get anything done is to be inclusive of the council rather than giving them marching orders or telling them, 'This is what I want to do,' " Englander said.

Hahn rejected suggestions that his defeat over the budget underscored deeper tensions with the City Council. He portrayed the vote as an isolated setback -- one of the inevitable "bumps in the road" -- and predicted that he and the council would forge agreements in the future.

"Can't make everybody happy all the time," the mayor said Thursday morning at a downtown event to raise money for the city firefighters' widows and orphans fund. "But we continually work closely with the council, and we did this year. That's how we were able to move forward.

"I don't know what the frustrations are about," he added. "Guess you have to ask the council.... But I think we're in good shape."

Some council members echoed his sentiment,

"This is one city," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who consistently opposed Hahn's budget. "Today's most arch-opponent is tomorrow's person that you need desperately. That's the way of politics."

Hahn's aides tried to cast this week's budget vote as a success for the mayor, who can argue to the public that he fought to expand the Police Department by 320 officers despite the council's objections.

Robin Kramer, a former chief of staff to Riordan, agreed that Hahn may yet emerge a winner in the budget debacle.

If crime is up when the 2005 reelection campaign rolls around, she said, Hahn "will be able to make a convincing case, a political case, an electoral case, that he fought" fiercely to hire more officers.

But some analysts said Hahn's inability to rally council members to his side indicates a weakness in his administration.

"Whether you agree or disagree with Mayor Hahn, it's incredibly important for a city to have a mayor who sets the agenda," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

For most of his term, Hahn had moved his program through the council with little resistance. But his legislative successes masked an underlying resentment from council members who said they've felt pushed aside -- excluded from major decisions, rarely consulted, expected to pass the mayor's initiatives without questions.

Many of the complaints center on Hahn's staff, which council members and political observers say is ill-equipped for the diplomatic requirements at City Hall.

"They have completely isolated this mayor," said a Hahn friend who expressed dismay at how the budget debate was handled. "This is not the way it was supposed to go, and it's frustrating."

Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook dismissed criticism of the mayor's staff.

"This was a substantive disagreement on the budget," he said. "It would certainly be unfortunate if decisions were made not to hire more police officers because someone didn't like someone's tone of voice."

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