Pushing the debate about the size of the police force further into the Los Angeles mayoral campaign, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa went to police headquarters Wednesday to call for another countywide vote on a tax to pay for more officers and sheriff's deputies.
Just miles away, an emboldened Mayor James K. Hahn stepped up his criticism of the City Council for resisting his calls to instead put a tax measure to a citywide vote in May -- when the runoff of the election for mayor will be held.
Also on Wednesday, a third candidate in the race, former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, pushed a plan to carve the Los Angeles Unified School District into smaller districts. The proposal would "empower parents, teachers and principals," Hertzberg campaign officials said in a statement.
Similar proposals over the last two decades have failed. Most recently, a plan that would have created an independent district in the San Fernando Valley was rejected by the state Board of Education in 2001. Hertzberg's plan was opposed Wednesday by the teachers union and Los Angeles school Supt. Roy Romer.
But Hertzberg's proposal could tap into continuing discontent over city schools, particularly among voters in the Valley, which is his political base.
Still, for now, police -- and who has the best plan for getting more of them -- seem to be dominating the debate in the mayoral campaign.
Compared to other cities nationally, Los Angeles -- with around 9,100 sworn officers in its Police Department -- is among the most thinly policed relative to its population.
Villaraigosa's public safety plan comes a week after another candidate, state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley), unveiled his own proposal to tap the airport, port and Department of Water and Power for funds to increase the size of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Last month, voters countywide narrowly turned down Measure A, a proposal to raise the sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75% to pay for additional officers and deputies.
Hahn argues that a similar tax measure should be put on the citywide ballot in the spring, and Wednesday he pointed to support from a political ally, Rick Caruso, a city police commissioner and shopping center developer.
"I think the council members, who aren't business people, ought to listen to a real businessman who says bringing down crime will be good for business," Hahn said.
Caruso said Tuesday that he would personally fund an effort to gather the necessary signatures to put a half-cent sales tax hike before Los Angeles voters. But on Wednesday, Caruso said he didn't mean to suggest the measure could be voted on in May. As an individual, he would have only until Dec. 8 to get the 85,410 signatures necessary to put a measure on the May ballot.
Hahn, whose former communications director now works for Caruso, has said a sales tax hike would allow Los Angeles to hire some 1,600 police officers.
For more than three years, Hahn did not propose a major new revenue source to expand the force, which Chief William J. Bratton has said needs 3,000 more officers.
But in recent weeks, Hahn has taken every opportunity to plug a sales tax hike, though he has yet to release any specific plan for how the revenue should be spent. On Wednesday, he brushed aside Villaraigosa's proposal for a 2006 countywide measure and again urged quick action.
"If we tie our fortunes to the county of Los Angeles, it might not pass again. But in my mind, there's no doubt we could pass it if it's only in the city of Los Angeles," said Hahn, standing outside a new Home Depot in the Rampart neighborhood, where violent crime has fallen dramatically in recent years.
"Let the voters decide. What is wrong with giving the voters a chance to vote on this?"
Another fight over how to fund the Police Department, however, does carry risk for the mayor: the danger of further alienating other city leaders, who in the past have rejected the mayor's efforts to push them into providing more money for the force.
Hahn did not consult other city leaders before pressing the City Council last month to put a city sales tax measure on the March mayoral ballot.
The council overwhelmingly rejected Hahn's proposal last month.
Many council members and others, including a leading local economist as well as business leaders, cautioned that a sales tax hike limited to the city of Los Angeles could push shoppers to head for malls and other stores in neighboring communities.
Villaraigosa said Wednesday that another countywide plan would avoid that problem, even if putting the tax on the county ballot would mean waiting a year. Raising the sales tax countywide would better guarantee lower crime rates while avoiding damage to businesses in the city, he said.
"This is more than a solution for Los Angeles.... It is a countywide plan," Villaraigosa said. "We recognize that crime does not stop at the county line."
The Eastside councilman, who put more than $500,000 from one of his campaign accounts into the Measure A effort, also said that a countywide solution would ensure that the courts and jails could handle more defendants and prisoners and that anti-crime programs would be adequately funded.
Villaraigosa's plan would set aside 15% of revenues for prevention of youth crime.
In addition to a 2006 tax measure, Villaraigosa is also proposing to hire 300 police officers with money L.A. anticipates getting back from the state, as well as with savings he proposes to generate by eliminating waste and fraud. He did not say where the savings could be found.
"There are a lot of people talking about proposals," said Villaraigosa, accompanied by Councilman Jack Weiss. "We developed a comprehensive plan."
Times staff writers Jean Merl and Cara DiMassa contributed to this report.