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But every now and then, in council debate or off the cuff, the easygoing demeanor can drop away and reveal a hint of the defensive and defeated chief who dressed down the council in April 2002. Something about him leaves the impression that he is always on the verge of walking back to that podium, grievance on his sleeve, distributing a list of crises looming over the city and folding his arms in satisfaction. It comes out when he criticizes Hahn’s fund-raising commission appointees, or when he cautions prudence in budget matters.
Bernard Parks seems like a man always on the verge of saying, “I told you so.”
Parks began appearing at the council’s Budget and Finance Committee meetings a year ago, just days after he captured nearly eight of every 10 votes cast in his South L.A. district. Under normal circumstances he would have had 16 long weeks to go fishing or hang out with the grandkids before taking his council seat. But Mark Ridley-Thomas left the seat vacant when he moved to the state Assembly, and Parks so thoroughly trounced his four competitors that he avoided a May runoff. He was appointed to fill the Ridley-Thomas council seat immediately, grabbing a valuable four-month jump on the rest of his incoming class.
A budget battle, a rebellion, was brewing. Hahn, on a public-safety reform roll after his ouster of Parks, wanted to keep things moving with the appointment of the high-profile William Bratton as the new chief and the vow to do what neither Parks nor former Mayor Richard Riordan could — expand the LAPD to almost 10,000 cops. His budget called for borrowed money and crossed fingers to get those officers, but Hahn ran headlong into a coalition that one exasperated mayoral staffer branded the “three P’s in a pod”: Budget Chairman Nick Pacheco, council President Alex Padilla and Parks.
Budget and Finance rejected Hahn’s spending plan, calling it imprudent at a time of fiscal uncertainty, and some council staffers said it was Parks’ way of saying “screw you” to both the mayor who fired him and the LAPD that failed to back him up as chief. Hahn himself lashed out at Parks in a radio interview.
“None of [the council members] have the kind of experience that Bill Bratton has,” a frustrated Hahn told talk-show host Larry Mantle, “including the newest council member from the 8th District, who presided over the department shrinking by over 900 officers.” Parks just smiled when asked about the on-air outburst. Hahn’s budget plan went down to defeat.
When the new councilman’s four-month apprenticeship ended and he was sworn in to his first full term, council President Alex Padilla named Parks to one of the most powerful positions in City Hall — chairman of Budget and Finance.
Vindication? Vengeance? No, arguably, just prudence. Since that budget fight, the governor was recalled, the state fiscal crisis has worsened, and movie-action-hero-turned-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a budget that leaves cities and counties bereft of funds. Los Angeles faces a $300 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year. Layoffs are looming. Whole departments are slated for elimination.
Before it all happened, everyone else on the council signed off on a pact with the police union for steady raises over the next three years. But not the pragmatic Parks. Imprudent, he said.
Now the city is reopening all contracts. There was a glint in Parks’ eye that, looked at from just the right angle, said, “I told you so.” Fiscal conservatives, San Fernando Valley voters, take notice.
“We have put ourselves somewhat in a bind,” Parks said simply, by meeting employee-union demands for wages.
Anything Parks didn’t already know about Crenshaw, Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, West Adams, Jefferson Park and Chesterfield Square he learned in weeks of tireless campaign walking. At nearly every door, he was treated as a hero. He asked about concerns and issues and policies, and took careful notes. Now he can rattle off stats about the number of former prisoners soon to be released into the district, and the amount of vacant prime square footage that developers would kill for — if the lots were in other parts of town.
Parks has a fascinating record for reading his district. Sometimes he seems so finely tuned to his constituents’ needs and aspirations that he could speak in their voices, and vice versa. And other times he seems so clueless he could pass for a foreign visitor just off the plane at the Tom Bradley International Terminal a few miles to the southwest.
His most public misfire as a councilman centered on his quest to rename Crenshaw Boulevard for Bradley, the black police officer prevented by LAPD racism from rising in the ranks, who then meted out comeuppance by being elected to the City Council. And then became the city’s most famous mayor.
Nate Holden spearheaded the change, but Parks fought hard for it. So did the city’s old-line black leadership. But neighborhood activists and residents viewed the move as just one more City Hall insiders’ game, devised behind closed doors and foisted upon them without discussion. You don’t do that in a district where then-councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas set up the Empowerment Congress, a network of four carefully crafted community councils where even the most mundane civic matters become the subject of discussion, debate and a vote.