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Main rivals for L.A. city controller have contrasting styles

Councilwoman Wendy Greuel is a team player who forges consensus, while electrical engineer Nick Patsaouras is more confrontational, ripping bureaucrats who disappoint him.

February 26, 2009|David Zahniser

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and electrical engineer Nick Patsaouras look similar on paper: They live in the San Fernando Valley, take a deep interest in public transit and run in the same circle of political climbers.

Yet temperamentally, the two main candidates for Los Angeles city controller in Tuesday's election could not be less alike, with Greuel delicately forging consensus among her colleagues and Patsaouras ripping into the bureaucrats who have disappointed him.

With such different styles, the race boils down to two pivotal questions: Is Greuel too nice to fill the shoes occupied by City Controller Laura Chick, perhaps the city's crustiest politician? At the other end of the spectrum, is Patsaouras too mean, a bull who will be easily distracted in City Hall's china shop?

One person who refuses to take sides is Chick, a crusader at City Hall who has declined to endorse either candidate. Despite her affinity for Patsaouras, Chick has dropped hints that he should have run a better campaign. Yet Chick also has sent veiled messages about Greuel's more accommodating style, saying the city controller's office is "not a place for a nice, sweet person."

"You have to end up disrupting things, upsetting people, exposing things, and it has to be done without any care whatsoever for who is your friend and who isn't," Chick said.

Complicating the nice-versus-mean scenario is a third candidate, businesswoman Kathleen "Suzy" Evans. The lone candidate without experience in government, Evans said her opponents are both part of a failed system. "Our streets are in horrible shape, we have too much traffic and . . . City Hall is not doing anything about it," she said. "In fact, they're making it worse."

With less than a week before the election, Greuel will soon show voters whether she wants to remain collegial or, like so many other city politicians, hit her opponent with negative TV commercials in the campaign's final hours.

Greuel, 47, was elected in 2002, forging a reputation as a team player who worked to balance the budget, cut the city's business taxes and win passage of small-scale traffic measures, such as a ban on rush-hour construction. She joined the council's less flashy committees, the kind that deal with performance audits and shuttle bus routes.

Working agreeably with her colleagues helped Greuel secure the endorsement of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and 12 of the council's 15 members. "Wendy's one of the most diligent students of policy," said Council President Eric Garcetti. "She actually likes policy and digs deep into it."

Still, Greuel said she can also be tough -- and has shown that she can put her foot down. Greuel pointed out that when the Department of Water and Power proposed rate hikes in 2007, she and her colleagues sent the concept back to the drawing board for more work. Although she voted for the rate hikes five months later, she secured a more detailed explanation of how the money would be spent and a plan for giving some relief to residents of the hotter San Fernando Valley.

"I feel that I have demonstrated my ability to say no," she said.

Greuel voiced special pride over her successful effort to ban city commissioners from participating in campaign fundraising -- a reform that emerged from investigations into the administration of former Mayor James K. Hahn. Still, her job has also been marked by the frothier, feel-good activities that can consume a council member.

One recent event took place at a mall, where Greuel promoted bumper stickers that warned shoppers not to leave their Christmas packages visible in their cars. Another was the 2007 Wendy Greuel Horse Chip-a-Thon, which allowed Greuel's constituents to avoid losing track of their horses by implanting them with low-cost microchips.

Greuel set the tone for her campaign early on, celebrating her candidacy six weeks ago with a kickoff picnic in Van Nuys, one that generated donations for the Valley Food Bank. As if to accentuate the niceness factor even more, Greuel brought onstage a group of young children whom she dubbed Kindergartners for Controller.

While Greuel cultivated a family-friendly image, Patsaouras spent three years as Villaraigosa's flinty budget watcher at the DWP, scrutinizing that agency's expenses as one of five volunteer commissioners. Like Greuel, Patsaouras' experience in politics harked back to the administration of Mayor Tom Bradley.

As a member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board of directors in the 1990s, Patsaouras helped supervise the completion of the new MTA headquarters, bringing the project in under budget. On the DWP commission, he did not hide his disenchantment over the bureaucracy's handling of various decisions, including construction contracts and recruitment efforts.

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