In the race for Los Angeles city controller, Ron Galperin, left, is second… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
A previously low-profile race for Los Angeles city controller has begun to heat up as opponents of City Councilman Dennis Zine accuse him of "double dipping" the city's payroll and question why he is considering lucrative tax breaks for a Warner Center developer.
Zine, who for 12 years has represented a district in the southeast San Fernando Valley, is the better known of the major candidates competing to replace outgoing Controller Wendy Greuel.
The others are Cary Brazeman, a marketing executive, and lawyer Ron Galperin. Zine has raised $766,000 for his campaign, more than double that of Galperin, the next-highest fundraiser, and has the backing of several of the city's powerful labor unions.
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He also has been endorsed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and several of his council colleagues. Galperin is backed by the Service Employees International Union, one the city's largest labor groups, and Brazeman is supported by retired Rep. Diane Watson and several neighborhood council representatives.
With the primary ballot less than a week away, Brazeman and Galperin have turned up the heat on Zine, hoping to push the race beyond the March 5 vote. If no one wins more than 50% of the ballots cast, the top two vote-getters will face a runoff in the May general election.
In a recent debate, Zine's opponents criticized him for receiving a $100,000 annual pension for his 33 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and a nearly $180,000 council salary. Brazeman and Galperin called it an example of "double dipping" that should be eliminated.
That brought a forceful response from Zine, who shot back that he gives a big portion of his police pension check to charities.
"I am so tired of hearing 'double dipping,' " he said. "I worked 33 years on the streets of Los Angeles. I have given over $300,000 to nonprofits that need it.... That's what's happened with that pension."
In the same debate, Brazeman accused Zine of cozying up to a Warner Center developer by pushing for tax breaks on a project that already has been approved. The nearly 30-acre Village at Westfield Topanga project would add 1 million square feet of new shops, restaurants, office space and a hotel to a faded commercial district on Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
"The councilman proposed to give developers at Warner Center tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks even though it's a highly successful project," he said. "He wants to give it away."
City records show that less than a month after the development was approved in February 2012, Zine asked the council for a study looking at possible "economic development incentives" that could be given to Westfield in return for speeding up street and landscaping enhancements to the project's exterior.
The motion's language notes that similar tax breaks have been awarded to large projects in the Hollywood and downtown areas, and that "similar public investment in the Valley has been lacking." Westfield is paying for the $200,000 study.
Zine defended his decision before the debate audience, saying if the study finds that the city will not benefit, no tax breaks will be awarded. "If there's nothing there, then they get nothing," Zine said.
The controller serves as a public watchdog over the city's $7.3-billion annual operation, auditing the general fund, 500 special fund accounts and the performance of city departments. Those audits often produce recommendations for reducing waste, fraud and abuse.
But the mayor and the council are not obligated to adopt those recommendations, and as a result the job is part accountant, part scolder in chief. All the candidates say they will use their elective position not only to perform audits but also to turn them into action.
Their challenge during the campaign has been explaining how they will do that.
Zine, 65, says his City Hall experience has taught him how to get things done by working with his colleagues. He won't be afraid to publicly criticize department managers, he said, but thinks collaboration works better than being combative.
"You can rant and rave and people won't work with you," he said. "Or you can sit down and talk it out, and you can accomplish things."
Galperin, 49, considers himself a policy wonk who relishes digging into the details to come up with ways to become more efficient with limited dollars and to find ways to raise revenue using the city's sprawling assets. For instance, the city owns two asphalt plants that could expand production and sell some of its material to raise money to fix potholes, he said.
He's served on two city commissions, including one that found millions of dollars in savings by detailing ways to be more efficient. Zine is positioning himself as a "tough guy for tough times," but the controller should be more than that, Galperin said.
"What we really need is some thoughtfulness and some smarts and some effectiveness," he said. "Just getting up there and saying we need to be tough is not going to accomplish what needs to be done."
Brazeman, 46, started his own marketing and public relations firm in West Los Angeles a decade ago and became active in city politics over his discontent with a development project near his home. He has pushed the council to change several initiatives over the last five years, including changes to the financing of the Farmers Field stadium proposal that will save taxpayer dollars, he said.
As controller, he would pick and choose his battles, and, Brazeman said, be "the right combination of constructive, abrasive and assertive."