It’s a mark of the disarray and crisis within Los Angeles City Hall that Police Chief William Bratton, one of the most famous cops in the world, riding high on an era of low crime and sometimes absurdly over-praised accomplishments, is leaving town on October 31 on an exceedingly sour note, publicly attacking members of the City Council as they attack him back.
Taking advantage of the power vacuum inside LAPD caused by Bratton’s imminent departure for New York, City Council members including Paul Koretz, Bernard Parks and Greig Smith are eyeing the LAPD budget and considering a major raid on it as they pass their 100th day mired in a budget deficit they failed all summer to resolve.
Bratton came out swinging on October 6, when he told a swarm of reporters that “once again the political leadership of this city has told a lie. ... They told the public we were going to grow this department with your tax dollars. If they’re going to shrink the department, well, they better give those tax dollars back.” In response, Councilman Smith publicly invited the chief to get out of town — sending local radio talk shows into overdrive about the antics inside City Hall.
City Council members who sit on two powerful committees — Budget and Finance, and Public Safety — wanted to cancel a November LAPD cadet class for recruits and halt the LAPD’s largely successful recruiting efforts. Council members insisted it’s merely a “temporary” hiring freeze to help plug a $405 million budget shortfall.On October 12, the warring sides suddenly appeared to agree that LAPD will accept some trims — such as allowing the City Council to cancel the upcoming academy class — but Bratton’s successor will still be allowed to hire cops to replace retiring police officers. Yet the minute the charismatic and persuasive Bratton leaves his post in about two weeks, the détente, brokered by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Bratton and City Council members Dennis Zine and Eric Garcetti, could easily unravel.
The budget battle goes much deeper than the current sniping between Bratton and the City Council. It calls into question whether city leaders publicly lied when Villaraigosa, City Council President Garcetti and then-Councilwoman Wendy Greuel in 2006 pushed through an exceedingly controversial trash-collection fee hike, and then in 2008 a near-unanimous City Council pushed through another trash fee hike. Together, the steep hikes have more than tripled costs to L.A. households. Downtown’s pols assured Angelenos that the extra cash raised would not vanish into the general fund but would be used to hire 1,000 additional police.
Now, with trash bills soaring to $435 per year for an average household, Bratton’s outburst and City Hall’s retorts are giving his departure a surprisingly negative afterglow. “I have a lot of philosophical differences with him,” sniffs City Councilman Koretz. Council District 8 representative and former chief Bernard Parks, a longtime Bratton critic, goes so far as to say the chief “does not understand” the legalities of the trash tax, saying “it’s illegal to raise (garbage) fees for specific allocations.”
Perhaps, but not long ago, City Hall pols were singing an entirely different tune. The difference now? The City Council is drowning in a $400 million deficit while refusing to lay off workers from the massive 48,000 city-employee force. Last month, a large coalition of city unions prevailed in a high-stakes fiscal stare-down, and Garcetti and the council ultimately gave the unions most of what they sought, an early-retirement buyout deal for 2,400 workers, which is not expected to significantly reduce the looming deficit.
In the wake of that decision, city leaders now appear to be arguing that using the significant $264 million in annual revenues from the trash fee — called by many a tax — was part of the plan all along.
“I’ve been saying for the past year we should be scaling back on all hiring,” Parks says. “You cannot keep hiring police for this year’s budget or next year’s.”
To tap into the trash fee, the City Council would mine perfectly legal loopholes included in the language approved in 2006 — fine print L.A. residents didn’t hear about until former L.A. City Controller Laura Chick released an eye-popping 2008 audit. Chick discovered that only $47 million, or about one-third of the new trash-fee revenue then pouring into city coffers, went to hiring cops, and 366 officers were hired instead of the promised 1,000. The rest of the money — another $90 million also tacked onto residents’ trash bills — paid for LAPD overhead and raises.
Chick’s audit set off critics who said Villaraigosa and the City Council had engaged in a bait-and-switch maneuver, publicly promising 1,000 more cops to silence thousands of opponents of the trash-fee hike but really intending that the money go to raises and equipment for existing police officers.
Now, City Hall appears to be abandoning all pretense that the tax was ever meant for LAPD. The chief spokesman for the latest spin appears to be Koretz, the new councilman representing much of the Westside, who spent several years in the Sacramento Legislature as an outspoken pro-tax advocate who fought budget cuts. Says Koretz: “The tax-hike fee is not an earmark (for police).”
Brentwood community activist Jay Handal, co-chair of the citywide Neighborhood Councils Budget Representatives Committee, says the 2006 pitch to the public was a misconception propagated by Villaraigosa and current City Council members. “We got sold a bill of goods,” says Handal, “but it was in the fine print.”
The subterfuge was so effective, in fact, that Westside community activist and LAPD gadfly Monica Harmon, who follows the police department so closely that the brass would probably love to see her find a different hobby, says that even she, a devotee, “never heard them say [the trash tax] would be used for other resources.”
Former Los Angeles Daily News editor and blogger Ron Kaye, who covered the angry debates over the proposed fee hike, says, “It was an open and overt agreement between the public and the City Council and the mayor — that it would go toward more cops.”
Such behavior by City Council members and Villaraigosa no longer surprises Handal. “They violate the public trust on a regular basis,” he says. Given their current overspending, at a rate of about $1 million a day, “they’re not good stewards of our money. And we have a lack of oversight in the city, and that starts at the top. That starts with the mayor.”
Parks and Koretz — who voted in favor of an October 5 recommendation to cut LAPD spending — deny that they plan to divert all of the hundreds of millions of dollars in trash-tax revenue from LAPD and into the deficit hole.
Newcomer Koretz slams Bratton as a man who likes to “overstate, when he wants to prevail” — an accusation often leveled at Koretz himself, as he pushed for significant extra spending and taxes in Sacramento.
No matter who is telling the taller tale about how City Hall will balance its budget, it’s turned into a nasty final few weeks for a chief who is wildly popular with the Los Angeles public. Popular or not, effective or not, Bratton is a lame duck, and the long knives are out in City Hall.
“He’s burned a lot of bridges with my colleagues,” says Zine, who claims that Bratton’s controversial political endorsements — for instance, he backed the victor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, over Bernard Parks for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors race — particularly irked some council members.
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The unraveling relationship probably means Bratton fans can forget about seeing “Bratton Police Headquarters” on the slick new downtown police center. Zine says simply, “I don’t think there would be support for that.”
True to form, Bratton has already positioned himself to get in the last word, saying at his impromptu press conference: “I’ll be watching with great interest 3,000 miles away as the crime rate goes up and I’ll sit over there and say, ‘I told you so.’ ”
Correction: Community activist Monica Harmon's first name was incorrect in the initial version of this story.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.