The first television advertisement in the race for Los Angeles city controller is a breezy affair, with Councilwoman Wendy Greuel darting from one civic building to the next as she rattles off a trio of wasteful government programs she would tackle if elected.
Greuel, one of three candidates vying to replace City Controller Laura Chick, begins the 30-second spot by standing outside the city's Housing Department, which made headlines in 2006 after it hired a former lawmaker from Hawaii to provide "team building" exercises.
"I want to show you why I'm running for city controller," Greuel declares, walking briskly. "This is the Housing Department, where they wasted money on a Zen Buddhist consultant to teach them how to breathe -- and fight with swords."
Housing officials said they are perplexed by the commercial, in part because Greuel voted to award the Zen Buddhist a contract for those same workshops in April 2006. Mercedes Marquez, general manager of the Housing Department, also said Greuel did not call the department at any point in her seven-year council career to say she was unhappy with the contract, even after The Times published a front-page article about it.
"I never received a letter from the councilwoman about it, never received any contact from her staff," Marquez said. "When she was on the audit committee, we were never asked to speak about the contract. In fact, we were never subjected to an audit about this by anybody."
In an interview, Greuel agreed that she voted for the contract, which provided $29,069 over two years to Zen Buddhist consultant Norma Wong and her training firm, Anko In/Daihonzan Chozen-ji. But she said none of the written materials submitted to her offered any hint that the participants would hold sticks or learn a different way to breathe.
Greuel also said there was no need for her to speak out once The Times' article was published in 2007. "I didn't see any point in going back to Mercedes about it, because it was clear in the article that it was not something people valued and that it was not a good use of taxpayer dollars," she said.
Still, one of Greuel's opponents, engineer Nick Patsaouras, said Greuel's handling of the contract shows that she has been unwilling to rock the boat at City Hall. "The tough questions should be asked continuously, not just at election time," he said.
The third candidate is businesswoman Kathleen "Suzy" Evans.
Greuel's campaign commercial is the second to roil the waters at City Hall in recent days. Last week, Chick called a commercial for city attorney candidate Jack Weiss "offensive," saying it overstated his success at addressing the backlog of untested rape kits at the Los Angeles Police Department. Weiss' campaign has decried the criticism and relied on L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton to highlight Weiss' work on the issue.
Greuel's commercial also annoyed Councilwoman Jan Perry, who said council members should speak out if they are unhappy with a contract. "If you have a problem with something at the time, you say it at the time and you vote accordingly," she said. "And I may be wrong, but I don't recall that anybody asked that it be reconsidered."
Since the work was performed, housing officials have defended the consultant, Norma Wong, who has been promoted as an expert on Sun Tzu's "Art of War," saying she encouraged department employees to take risks and operate in nonbureaucratic ways as they sought to address the city's housing crisis.
Marquez told The Times two years ago that the consultant's breathing exercises and stick play were a small portion of the workshops. Nevertheless, they quickly became a punch line for critics of City Hall, who joked about breathing exercises that dealt with "sphincter control."
After seeing Greuel's commercial, Marquez voiced disappointment that it mentioned that the consultant is Buddhist. No one complains that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's gang czar is a Protestant minister or that the head of the Human Relations Commission is Jewish, she said.
"Certainly we're not implying that someone who is an expert in strategic thinking, planning and government be excluded because they happen to have a spiritual practice that is not mainstream on the mainland of the United States," Marquez said.
Greuel said that her complaints have nothing to do with the consultant's belief system and everything to do with services that were not needed by the Housing Department. "I think [Marquez] has done good things for the department, but I disagree with this particular action," she added.
The campaign commercial describes two other city programs with spending practices about which questions have been raised: a Housing Department loan program and purchases by the Animal Services Department. In the ad, Greuel points out that the latter, which runs the six city animal shelters, had two X-ray machines that were never taken out of their boxes.
The revelation about unused X-ray machines first appeared in an audit produced by Chick's office. Although the report came out in May, the council's three-member Audits and Efficiency Committee -- a panel that Greuel serves on -- did not take up the animal services contract.
Greuel said Councilman Jose Huizar, the audit committee's chairman, decides when a certain topic goes on the agenda. Huizar aides said they do not recall that Greuel ever asked to put it on the agenda.
"The bottom line is, this commercial is highlighting either audits or contract issues that are the kinds of things as controller that I will pursue," she added.