Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson is known as a pugnacious and independent soul whose generally conservative San Fernando Valley constituents probably wish the Democratic National Convention were taking place somewhere else.
Bernson may have felt the same way after Mayor Richard Riordan phoned him in council chambers minutes before a vote on money for the Democratic National Convention last Friday. Bernson said the mayor issued a heavy-handed threat to remove him from two key intergovernmental posts if Bernson voted to take back a $2 million gift convention planners say they need to meet a $6 million shortfall.
The call didn‘t sway Bernson. He voted to withhold the money, but it didn’t matter anyway. The measure failed by one vote, 7-6; eight votes were needed for the measure to pass.
The mayor ”should have known better than to threaten Hal,“ said a City Council member to whom a livid Bernson complained seconds after the call, which ended with Bernson roaring, ”How dare you!“ In addition to threatening to remove him from the powerful boards of the regional Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the mayor reportedly said to the councilman, ”You and I are over.“
”I think it‘s outrageous,“ said Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, the outspoken free-speech advocate who cast the deciding vote on a deal two weeks ago that gave the DNC organizers $2 million in transportation services and $4 million in cash in exchange for a controversial agreement (now rescinded) to designate the Central City Pershing Square park as a protest site.
That deal also required Riordan and fellow multimillionaire Ed Roski Jr., owner of the Staples Center, to let the convention host committee cash their letters of credit for $1 million each, promised by the two to reassure wary council members that no public funds would be needed beyond an initial $7 million in city in-kind services and $35 million raised by the DNC Host Committee, co-chaired by Eli Broad, a billionaire real estate developer.
Upon seeing the canceled checks for the money, Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle sent the city’s check for $2 million to the planners, who said it was needed urgently.
Mike Feuer, a city councilman from affluent, heavily Democratic West L.A., who sits near Bernson on the council and apparently overheard some of the conversation Bernson had with another council member about the mayor‘s threats, discussed his vote with Bernson shortly before the two men cast opposing ballots — Bernson for the motion to rescind the money, and Feuer, who had voted in opposition to the gift two weeks ago, voting against taking it back.
”I would say my boss believes that personal threats ought to stay out of the political process,“ said Daniel Hinerfeld, an aide to Feuer, hastening to add that he could not confirm that the threats occurred. Feuer had been vocal before the vote to donate the $4 million, but less so on the vote to take it back. Still, Hinerfeld said, ”He was struggling with it.“ The mayor did not threaten Feuer, a first-term Democrat who also represents part of the San Fernando Valley, Hinerfeld said.
One council member said Riordan didn’t have the power to remove Bernson from the board of the AQMD, to which he was elected by the council, but could remove him from the MTA‘s board, where Riordan has appointed power.
In the Mayor’s Office, meanwhile, press secretary Peter Hidalgo said he asked the mayor about Bernson‘s complaint. ”I asked him, but he didn’t want to comment beyond this,“ Hidalgo said, handing over a statement from the mayor that seemed likely to keep the warfare alive.
”We are on the verge of hosting an historic presidential convention and yet a few members of the City Council appear bent on embarrassing Los Angeles,“ the mayor‘s 210-word comment said in part. ”Any action to rescind the contribution would represent a gross breach of commitment by the city. Why would any organization want to hold a convention here knowing that there are a few unreliable, waffling City Council members who would renege on its promise?“
For the record, Councilwoman Laura Chick pointed out that the motion by San Fernando Valley Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski would have suspended the issuance of a $2 million check and placed the money in a fund for use by any city departments for emergencies during the convention and ”to assist in ensuring the public safety of those who may participate at alternate demonstration sites.“ The planners would have had to get council approval for each substantial disbursement, and so the mayor might have had to plead with them for every check.
The designation of Pershing Square as a protest site in the deal for Councilwoman Goldberg’s vote ignited a firestorm of protests from downtown merchants. The square, named after World War I hero General Jack ”Black Jack“ Pershing, is the oldest publicly owned plot of land in Los Angeles and sits in front of the historic Regal Biltmore Hotel, where Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, initially planned to stay. Now Gore has moved far from downtown to the more president-friendly Century City, where former President Ronald Reagan has offices.