As Eric Garcetti, left, and Wendy Greuel -- the two top candidates to become… (Los Angeles Times )
As the two top candidates to become Los Angeles mayor for the first time aired dueling television ads, they pushed back at rivals who say that City Hall is nearly broke — arguing that progress has been made in pulling the city back from the brink of insolvency.
Answering charges frequently leveled by two candidates who have never held public office — that elected officials have failed to do anything about the city's predicament during more than a decade in power — City Councilman Eric Garcetti and Controller Wendy Greuel struck back at attorney Kevin James and former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez.
"Anyone who says we're right on the edge of bankruptcy is being irresponsible," Garcetti said during a debate sponsored by LA5 the Rotary Club of Los Angeles. "It reminds me of the preacher in Central California who kept saying the end of days was near… We have done dramatic work in this city ... and I have led that work."
Garcetti ticked off the actions that the City Council took to lower a projected 2013-14 deficit from $1 billion to about $212 million, including $220 million in department cuts and more than $300 million in salary and employee pension savings.
Greuel argued that she had already identified areas where the city could save money, citing audits of city cellphone and fuel usage. She said she was open to an array of solutions, including ending pension "spiking," capping pensions and raising the retirement age.
"If we're at the brink, it is, I believe, a cop-out to say we should go bankrupt," Greuel said. "That's not the way to deal with the problems the city faces.… I've worked very hard as city controller to look at the ways we can do things better."
Although Garcetti and Greuel tend to avoid slinging arrows at one another at debates, they are now officially battling on the airwaves. Garcetti on Friday launched his first television advertisement, highlighting his efforts to revitalize his district, cut business taxes and reform pensions.
"Identifying problems is easy. Solving them is hard," Garcetti says, speaking directly into the camera.
He promises that if he is elected mayor he will improve local services such as filling potholes, picking up trash and making sure constituents' phone calls are answered. Improving such basic services "makes life better for families and makes growth possible," Garcetti concludes.
He is expected to spend about $500,000 airing the ad over the next nine days, roughly on par with what Greuel is spending on advertising, according to a Democratic media consultant who is not working for any of the candidates.
Greuel has been on the air since Jan. 29, but she will get a little extra help soon. Working Californians, an independent committee formed by labor and entertainment leaders to back Greuel, announced Friday that it was launching a spot.
Also warning that the city is teetering on bankruptcy, a narrator in the advertisement says that Greuel is the sole leader "who has what it takes to clean up the mess at City Hall." The ad highlights her work for former Mayor Tom Bradley and former President Clinton, as well as her time at DreamWorks. The ad also says that Greuel found $160 million in waste as the city's controller, a figure questioned by her opponents. A review by The Times found that more than half of that figure came from two audits: one in which Greuel merely identified funds she thought should be moved from one city fund to another and a second that relied on a projected future revenue that Greuel's own audit acknowledged was "unrealistic."
The sole elected official with no ad currently on the air, Councilwoman Jan Perry, continued sending out a stream of mail to voters, most recently a piece attacking Greuel as being aligned with departing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. At the debate, Perry sought to present herself as the most realistic of the candidates in assessing the city's financial straits, and she said she was independent from labor interests, a subtle dig at Garcetti and Greuel.
"The hardest part of this is to ask our employees, convince our employees, cajole our employees to make them understand, it is for our mutual long-term survivability and our ability to deliver core city services — fire, police, sanitation, providing public works to all of you — that they come back to [the negotiating] table," she said.
James and Pleitez, who lack the elected officials' financial resources and have relied on the debates for media coverage, continued to hammer the City Hall insiders.
"They talk about how they're running on their records. Well, I'm running on their records too, because that's what caused the crisis that we're in today," James said.
Pleitez said the response from the elected officials showed that they did not grasp the complexity of the city's finances. He noted that the city is running a deficit every year, and said Garcetti's remarks reflected what is wrong with City Hall.
"To say you're proud of cutting a $1.2-billion projected deficit to a $200-million deficit — I don't know about you, but I wouldn't be proud," he said.