Photo by Anne Fishbein

Two council seats are up for grabs in Inglewood elections on April 6, but the contest is shaping up as a referendum on the city’s mayor, Roosevelt Dorn, who will not appear on the ballot himself but dominates the five-seat panel with the help of two other African-American councilmen. Dorn, a former Superior Court judge with a fiery speaking style, was elected by a wide margin in 1997 to replace longtime mayor Ed Vincent, who won a seat in the state Assembly. Vincent was notorious for promoting friends and castigating enemies during his long tenure at City Hall; critics say Dorn has amply filled those shoes, pushing hard for new authority to name city department heads, battling the police and fire departments, and excoriating his foes in charged, racial language.

Partisans on both sides call the current contest a watershed that will either consolidate or end Dorn’s sway in the city. “Inglewood is at a crossroads,” says Councilman Jose Fernandez, a critic of Dorn, who is standing for re-election. “The city will get a lot better or a lot worse.”

By some measures, Inglewood has already hit bottom. Property values have declined steadily, keeping pace with the increase in air traffic at nearby LAX. More recently, the hockey Kings and basketball Lakers, long the saving grace of the “City of Champions,” announced plans to move to downtown L.A., casting the Forum’s formidable tax revenue in limbo.

Yet Dorn speaks with zeal about Inglewood’s incipient revival, his optimism staked in part on massive aid infusions and development projects he expects to bring online by the end of his term — Home Depot, Starbucks, car dealers, a new 16-to-20-screen theater and plenty of hotels. Add to that hundreds of millions of dollars for schools from a recently passed bond measure with state and federal matching funds, as well as massive neighborhood revitalization and other projects he claims are in the pipeline. In a couple of years, Dorn promises, “You won’t recognize Inglewood.”

But out on Market Street, once the city’s shopping nexus, struggling merchants find such optimism hard to fathom, highlighting the mayor’s tendency to talk of far-fetched scenarios and unsigned deals. The commercial strip is today virtually lifeless, a line of desolate buildings, fortified jewelry and loan shops, “For Lease” and “For Sale” signs. Parking is far too easy. The area might exist in silence were it not for the powerful drone of passing airplanes just overhead.

Critics say money is indeed the issue in Inglewood, but not the money Dorn says he’ll bring in — windfalls they doubt will materialize. Instead, the skeptics focus on the salaries of Dorn and the City Council, raised fourfold in 1996 to make council members’ annual take $47,000, and the mayor’s $94,500. Those raises are on the ballot as well, in the form of a city initiative that would roll back the pay hikes.

Incumbent Fernandez voted against the raises and says they fostered chaos in the administration of the city. “You have everyone running around trying to run departments to justify their salaries,” he said. “We have come to the point now where you have City Council members who go out to tell city workers how to trim a tree. I consider that micromanaging.”

Councilman Garland Hardeman, Dorn’s ally on the April ballot, says there is more than enough real work to go around: “My job is never-ending. That is why I am here on a daily basis — because you need to stay on top of projects and how the business of the city is done.”

He also claims that paying administrators big salaries while keeping council members on a stipend effectively discredits the people’s vote: “The old way was having the tail wagging the dog . . . [City staffers] don’t live here. They don’t have the same desire and push to succeed, [because] they go home to comfortable communities . . . I have to look at [blight] everyday when I am here, so it concerns me greatly.”

Dorn goes Hardeman one better. He denounces Fernandez as “lazy” and asserts that the beefed-up council salaries are essential to the city’s progress. “I would not work anywhere for $1,600 a month,” Dorn sniffs.

Another money issue is a recent 3-2 council vote to nix pay raises for the local police and fire departments, and to cut their rosters by more than 10 percent. The police and fire associations have responded by seizing on next week’s elections, funding the initiative to cut council pay, working to elect Hardeman challenger Lawrence A. Kirkley and backing Fernandez.

Inglewood’s warring factions come together once a week at meetings of the City Council, which routinely disintegrate into bickering, heckling, and threats to have police arrest people who are “out of order.”

Dorn, who begins council meetings with a prayer, dominates the proceedings as he once did the courtroom, where he was both celebrated and criticized for an autocratic manner that featured rapid-fire sentencing, reprimands for perceived offenses against decorum, and impromptu flights of oration that many likened to a preacher in the pulpit.

In council chambers, that approach translates into sudden outbursts and startling displays of authority. In one case, for example, Dorn silenced a speaker for addressing council members individually rather than the panel as a whole.

At times, the council clashes turn on race. In one memorable episode, after Judy Dunlap, the council’s only Anglo member, had questioned some city financial dealings, Dorn launched into a fierce tirade apparently aimed at her.

“My father indicated to me that we would run into these type of individuals,” Dorn said. “You can hide for a long time under a cloak, but sooner or later it is going to be pulled off of you and society will see you for what you really are . . . At least one of them is as [close to the] Ku Klux Klan [as anyone] who ever lived — and I don’t have to call any names, because everyone knows exactly who I am talking about.”

Asked in an interview to comment on the charged nature of such accusations, Dorn replied, “I won’t even discuss what I can’t prove . . . I don’t find racism in the city of Inglewood a big problem.”

In an impassioned speech to churchgoers on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, however, Dorn used similar imagery as though the specter of racism was ready to smother Inglewood. “I am here to tell you God has ordained that this city will progress, and no matter who stands against progress, we will overcome it. . . . The Ku Klux Klan had their headquarters in the city of Inglewood. There was a day when the sun could not set on a black face in the city of Inglewood. And there are those who would love to see the clock turn back to that, but never, never again . . . And those who represent those views — even though some of you may be in office — we are going to remove you because we cannot, will not, stand for that type of mentality in the city of Inglewood. Oh, we are going to pull the covers off of some of you.”

According to one longtime city resident, the Klan was last active in 1922.

Confronted by the police and fire associations in his effort to set the city’s agenda, Dorn has turned to another local power nexus — the city’s churches. When the fire department sought last year to get out from under city control and move to county jurisdiction, Dorn appealed to the area Pastors Advisory Committee. In a speech last May, he declared, “The pastors have an obligation [to tell their flock] who they should be voting for and who they should not be voting for. If you don’t let them know what is going on, what are they going to believe?

“They’re doing everything they can to take our fire department. Now, either we’re going to fight back or we’re going to let them take it,” Dorn told the assembled pastors. “Isn’t it amazing that all of a sudden, when there’s a strong mayor advocating for the people, for the residents, [they say] ‘We want out.’”

Regardless of whether Dorn’s council majority survives this election, Inglewood’s demographics are changing, and the council seems sure to follow. While Inglewood is still widely regarded as an African-American city, nearly half its population is now Latino. “I have seen the whole transfer of power from mostly Anglo to a mostly African-American administration,” says Fernandez. “[Now] it needs to be composed of all kinds of people. To put up barriers and try to stop change is only divisive.”

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