The Otani Affair 

Two top picks for Bernie Parks’ replacement book the wrong place to stay

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002

Here‘s a friendly hint for LAPD-chief candidates John Timoney and Bill Bratton. Assuming you really do want the highest-paying job in Los Angeles, it’s bad taste to be caught staying at the state‘s most notorious anti-union hotel. Let alone being followed there and interviewed by L.A. Times reporters.

I mean, no elected official in the county would even allow his casket viewing to be held at the notoriously union-busting New Otani across the street from City Hall East. Let alone have a highly publicized lunch there. With the Times’ Tina Daunt in attendance.

Reached in New York, Bratton said, “I was familiar with the New Otani from the past -- I‘d stayed there before.’‘ Oops. He said the Marriott, where the city had suggested he stay, ”was fully booked. The city had nothing to do with this.“

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Timoney told Daunt that he had stayed at the Otani to save $190 of the $340 per day the city gave him for a room allowance. Did Timoney bother to find out that the main reasons the New Otani is so cheap these days are that (a) it’s busted its union and pays subhuman wages and (b) accordingly, most normal human beings won‘t book there? Just asking. And by the way, a few other hotels downtown charge similarly affordable rates and also have unions. The Biltmore, for instance.

David Koff, top researcher for the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union, noted that the informal boycott of the New Otani by city, county and other union members has hit it hard. Koff said the pariah hostelry has just had another round of layoffs and cut some salaries down to the minimum wage. ”The entire banquet staff is now on call, instead of being full-time,“ he said. One cook now serves all three restaurants, Koff said.

And what does this oversight say about Bratton’s or Timoney‘s purported abilities to hit the ground running, as it were, in a new city with unknown hazards?

Whatever else you can say, these guys are turnaround pros. And this is increasingly the name of the game in police-chiefing in 21st-century America. No longer is a top cop necessarily expected to emerge from the department’s own culture. Au contraire: Timoney went on to lead the Philadelphia P.D., while Bratton, in his career so far, has rehabbed the Boston city and regional police departments, plus the NYPD and -- earlier -- the N.Y. Transit Police.

In this company, the local hero on the mayor‘s three-man shortlist, LAPD vet Art Lopez, isn’t a strong contender. Lopez has lately been running the Oxnard P.D. -- where the boys in blue tend to play a little rough. Oxnard is to L.A. what Yonkers is to New York. Yet, according to one cynical downtown insider, the top contender is exactly what Lopez is: if, that is, Mayor Jim Hahn‘s primary consideration in choosing a new chief is his own political future.

The reasoning goes thus: Unlike your usual L.A. mayoral incumbent, Jim could have a tough re-election battle in three years. He could be facing as many as three Latino candidates in a majority-Latino Los Angeles -- City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, council President Alex Padilla, and even a plausible rematch with 2001 contender Antonio Villaraigosa. Plus, of course, his current mortal enemy -- potential 8th District City Councilman Bernard Parks. Does Hahn dare go into that ring bearing the onus of having rejected the only Latino candidate for police chief? Particularly with his traditional African-American support gone to Parks? In such a setup, Hahn’s potential opponents, at least, must be thinking, just who would root for mayor Jim, anyway? Valley Vote?

So Hahn may have to give Lopez the appointment merely to survive another term, my cynical friend says.

This is reasonable, but a little shortsighted. There is another problem that the Lopez appointment won‘t likely solve: reforming the LAPD. Putting Lopez in charge would probably be putting off this problem, carrying it forward, the way it was carried forward under Bernard Parks. And if something awful -- another riot, another Rodney King--type episode -- involving the LAPD happened on Lopez’s watch, Hahn would be branded as the mayor who‘d picked him over the top two police reformers in the nation. Which sure wouldn’t help him get re-elected. On the other hand, both Timoney and Bratton have specialized in turning around police departments.

Bratton might still be at it, had his boss, the nutty and virtually skinless Mayor Rudy Giuliani, not minded seeing his commissioner on the front page so often. Otherwise, Bratton‘s had an unblemished career. Or so the story goes.

It’s a story I want to believe. But then the Times has quoted an expert‘s opinion that a new police chief should have a good eye for ”significant red flags,“ or things wrong with the department. One might suppose that anyone good at spotting ”red flags“ in the LAPD might be equally good at spotting them somewhere else -- and question what could be wrong with a conveniently located major hotel, in a major city, that was chronically underbooked, understaffed and underpriced.

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