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Tit for Tat 

The mayor and the council talk up a deal — LAUSD power for term-limit extensions

Wednesday, Jul 26 2006
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LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCILWOMAN Janice Hahn has not exactly been a fan of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s bid for power at the Los Angeles Unified School District. When the mayor gave his State of the City speech in April — one focusing heavily on his plan for L.A. Unified — Hahn responded immediately with a critique, saying any change in the district’s governing structure should be decided by voters.

Only a few weeks later, when the City Council reviewed Villaraigosa’s budget, Hahn again challenged the mayor, voting with six of her colleagues to limit his ability to spend city funds on a municipal takeover of L.A. Unified. The proposal failed on a 7-7 vote, but the message was clear: Nearly half of the council had deep reservations about Villaraigosa’s education initiative. Even in mid-June, Hahn told San Pedro’s Random Lengths newspaper that she didn’t see how the mayor’s plan “translates into accountability.”

Last week, however, Hahn was singing a much different tune, saying she now stands ready to support Villaraigosa’s school bill in Sacramento. “Maybe we ought to give the mayor a shot at this,” declared Hahn, whose brother was defeated by Villaraigosa last year.

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So what happened in the intervening four weeks? For one thing, Hahn and at least four of her council colleagues were recently sum­moned for private meetings with the mayor — one-on-one sessions which aides are not allowed to attend. Secondly, Hahn and other council members have been tracking a political issue near to their hearts: getting voters to loosen term limits just enough to allow them to serve a third four-year term.

And therein lies a marriage of convenience being crafted behind the scenes, according to four high-level City Hall sources, who asked for anonymity to avoid possible retaliation by their bosses or other politicians. Council members are determined to keep a popular mayor from speaking out against a November 7 ballot measure that would extend term limits. The mayor, in turn, fervently wants the council to endorse his controversial bill targeting L.A. Unified. So two utterly unconnected policy initiatives — term limits and a change in the structure at L.A. Unified, both of which would transform governance in Los Angeles — are being serendipitously joined in the minds of some top policymakers.

“This is the biggest opportunity for leverage that the mayor has in this four-year cycle, because the council cares about this more than anything else,” said one city official (who, like others familiar with the lobbying effort, requested anonymity). “He can probably ask for quite a lot if he wants.”

Although Villaraigosa has remained publicly silent on the issue of term limits, he privately discussed the proposed ballot measure with several council members, as well as City Controller Laura Chick. In at least one session, the mayor bluntly asked why he should support the council’s bid for a third term when he could get six new and more loyal council members elected in 2009. Villaraigosa also voiced a renewed interest in having “relationships” with council members whom he does not totally trust, according to sources familiar with the conversations.

While Villaraigosa held his private meetings, Councilman Herb Wesson has been serving as an envoy between the mayor and the council, telling council members of the mayor’s interest in uniting the council behind his school plan. Wesson also helped council members connect the dots between term limits and Villaraigosa’s proposed bill reform, said one council aide.

“[Villaraigosa] has not come out and clearly said it, to have plausible deniability,” said the aide. “But everybody knows, because Herb has been clear about it. He’s running around delivering that message.”

Wesson sharply disagreed, saying he is “taking the temperature” of his colleagues, not engaging in horse-trading. “Good policy, in my opinion, would be to alter term limits. And at the end of the day,” he added, “I’m optimistic the mayor will be there. But I don’t see the necessity of tradeoffs. I believe it will be based on the merits, on the policy aspects.”

Villaraigosa said he too sees no connection between his pending position on term limits and his campaign to win passage of his education bill. Instead, the mayor downplayed the notion that he even needs the council to support his bill, which comes up for its next hearing in Sacramento on August 9. “The vote’s going to be in the Legislature, and that’s where I’m focusing my efforts right now,” Villaraigosa said Wednesday.

Hahn said she embraced Villaraigosa’s bill not out of a desire for a third term, but because of frustration with high school dropout rates and an inflexible school board. The councilwoman said Villaraigosa never suggested a deal during their July 17 one-on-one meeting. Asked whether Wesson made such a suggestion, Hahn paused, then responded: “I’m not going to go there.”

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