One of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's close allies at the Department of Water and Power said Monday he would run for city controller, even though the mayor is already backing another candidate.
DWP Commission President Nick Patsaouras said he would seek the office occupied by Laura Chick, who will be forced out by term limits.
Patsaouras, 64, will face Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, a longtime Villaraigosa supporter who has already raised $700,000 in her bid for the seat. Until Monday, a Greuel victory in the March 3 election had been seen as a foregone conclusion at City Hall.
"I don't believe in coronations," Patsaouras said. "This city is in dire straits right now, and we need to have a discussion about the future."
Over eight years, Chick has transformed the controller's office into a politically powerful soapbox, using it to criticize high-level city officials and uncover little-known spending practices at a number of agencies, including the DWP.
Chick has not endorsed either candidate but in a statement welcomed the possibility of a competitive contest. "The taxpayers deserve a vigorous campaign," she said. "The people should know what the next Controller will do to protect the public's money, expose waste and fraud and fight to shake up the status quo in City Hall."
Greuel, who was elected in 2002 and has worked for former Mayor Tom Bradley and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, said she will not comment until Patsaouras has filed his election paperwork.
Patsaouras is a Greek immigrant, fluent in Spanish and heavily involved in L.A. politics. He ran for mayor in 1993 and has served on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He also heads the firm Polis Builders.
Monday's announcement represents at least a minor break between the mayor and Patsaouras, a frequently mercurial presence who has sharply criticized the DWP bureaucracy from the inside.
Tensions have flared for months between Patsaouras and H. David Nahai, hired by Villaraigosa to run the DWP. Patsaouras criticized, though ultimately reaffirmed, Nahai's decision to give a $152,000 boost to the pension of Raman Raj, the DWP's No. 2 executive. That proposal was abandoned after Chick denounced it.
Patsaouras also voiced dismay that Nahai had failed to disclose that Raj represented at least five DWP contractors before he was hired. And in August, he sent an e-mail to Villaraigosa resigning from the DWP but was quickly talked out of that decision by at least one mayoral aide.
Patsaouras recently failed to persuade the board to create a new post of ratepayer advocate. And two weeks ago, he complained he had been kept out of the loop on a planned solar ballot initiative that DWP officials say could cost the utility up to $3 billion over 25 years.
Patsaouras said city officials should not support the solar measure, which Greuel has backed, until they know whether it will lead to higher electrical rates.
"Until we have a cost analysis, we should not, in this period of economic crisis, pass costs onto the consumer unless they're justified," he said.
Patsaouras said none of those issues at the DWP had anything to do with his campaign plans. He also said Villaraigosa was gracious when told of his decision to run. Patsaouras said he intends to resign from the DWP commission later this week.
Greuel is part of a larger political apparatus that is seeking to give Villaraigosa a second term as mayor and elect Councilman Jack Weiss as city attorney. The councilwoman rarely disagrees with Villaraigosa and is a frequent presence at mayoral news conferences.
Three other candidates have notified the Ethics Commission that they intend to seek the controller's job: Mervin L. Evans, Kathleen "Suzy" Evans, and Sherree Saperstein.