In a sweaty Van Nuys meeting room crammed with neighborhood leaders from the San Fernando Valley, the pleasant Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel smiled out at the crowd as she delivered the plans she hopes to pursue if voters give her a new job on March 3 — that of filling the big shoes of City Hall’s departing bully-pulpit mistress City Controller Laura Chick.

As usual, Greuel was plainspoken and likable, two qualities that have made her popular in her Valley City Council district and cemented her good relations with fellow council members and with her friend and close political ally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But while the neighborhood leaders nodded and smiled, something seemed slightly off. Each time Greuel delivered one of her well-honed lines — “I led the effort, at the direction of the mayor, to get 20 percent of energy [from renewables] by 2010,” “I led the push for historic business-tax reform in Los Angeles,” “There’s no more important issue in Los Angeles than transportation” — many in the crowd of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils looked away from Greuel to catch the expressions on the face of the man sitting next to her.

Nick Patsaouras, the Greek immigrant engineer who has lived in Los Angeles for decades but still speaks with the accent of a guy just arriving from Athens, was sitting next to Greuel and being a gentleman. But just barely.

He slightly arched a brow, he pursed his lips, and he finally just plain glowered. For each reasonable-sounding accomplishment or plan Greuel put forth, Patsaouras had an alternate view of reality. “Why are we going around saying L.A. is the greenest city in the world?” he asked, shaking his head. “Talking about a business tax? We have the highest business tax in the region.” “Energy? We are going to spend $1 billion on solar so we can light up 850 [digital] billboards!”

When moderator and neighborhood leader Jill Barad tried to call time on Patsaouras to let Greuel jump in, a man in the neighborhood activist–jammed audience, which had resisted applauding for either of the candidates, barked: “Let him finish! He’s stating facts!”

Greuel’s long-planned bid to become the new Chick, who is leaving office this year due to term limits, was supposed to go easier. She has been raising sizable campaign funds for a long time, and has been strategizing with allies on the 15-member City Council, who have endorsed her, sometimes in exchange for her agreements to back them for their future races for higher office. It looked like a cakewalk.

But that was before the economy tanked. It was before Greuel took vote after vote in City Council chambers to hike local taxes and fees — some of them into the stratosphere. It was before Greuel and her council colleagues were fingered by L.A. Weekly as the body that had handed an inexplicable sweetheart deal to out-of-control billboard firms. It was before Greuel and her colleagues were showered with negative press for rushing onto the March ballot a solar measure that she and the other council members clearly did not understand — and which Chick is opposing for its lack of transparency, rushed handling and potentially uncontrollable costs.

When moderator Barad read an audience member’s question about whether Greuel and other council members should have disclosed that they took money from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, which sponsored solar Measure B and appears to have successfully pressured the council to rush it onto the ballot, Greuel grew visibly uncomfortable. She tried to punt, telling the neighborhood leaders, “It is very important to go to the City Ethics Commission Web site, and you can see those contributions there.” Pressed to explain whether she or other council members “disclosed [acceptance of IBEW money] at the time of the vote,” Greuel finally responded with the strained comment, “No, but nobody asked. And I think that if anyone had asked, absolutely we would have disclosed.”

Then Greuel got a media shellacking a few days later, in a February 15 Los Angeles Times story reporting that she had voted “yes” on a widely pilloried contract to spend Los Angeles taxpayer money to hire Zen Buddhists to give breathing training to city Housing Department employees. Yet without revealing her role, Greuel is now slamming that same contract in her sophisticated campaign ads as “waste” she’s going to clean up if voters make her the new Chick.

All this has political observers wondering whether Patsaouras — who believes the city he has directly helped shape for more than two decades is now going sharply in the wrong direction — has an outside chance to topple Greuel. (He has served as a Metro board member, zoning commissioner, DWP board president, oversight chairman for the Harbor/UCLA trauma center project, chairman of the advisory committee for the new LAPD headquarters, and so on.)

Naturally, Pastaouras’ adviser, the veteran Democrat consultant Bill Carrick, believes Patsaouras, who jumped into the race extremely late and has had to scramble for funds, has a fighting chance.

Although exceptionally low voter turnout is expected March 3, Carrick says, those few voters could turn out to be Patsaouras’ kind of voters. “The most faithful municipal election voters do watch this [election] with intensity, and in a lot of cases they are the angriest people in L.A.,” the consultant explains. “They are very worried about the city’s fiscal abilities, and what we are doing with all the fees, a.k.a. taxes, that are being raised all over the place. And now that we are about to get a substantial amount of federal stimulus money; who is going to make sure it is spent properly, that there is accountability and sufficient transparency? You know, this [controller] job gets to be more important if you start thinking about how [Congress] could be sending us a lot of money, and if somebody is not watching — there could be a problem.”

Greuel says she is best equipped to deal with the onslaught of federal money and its potential for abuse, having served on the City Council’s Audits and Governmental Efficiency Committee. She likes to say, “I can assure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and effectively to root out waste, fraud and abuse.”

Patsaouras doesn’t talk like that, or even close. He’s much more skeptical that City Hall can clean its own house, and cites a litany of massive spending projects coming up, at LAX and inside the DWP. “It’s our money,” says Patsaouras, who has probably served on more commissions and advisory boards than anyone in modern L.A. history. “We should know exactly where it’s going — and doing an audit later is too late.”

He is particularly bothered by chronic rubber-stamping by the City Council of ideas that emanate from lobbyists, major unions and other entrenched insiders. He says he began growing worried as the City Council and Villaraigosa, who he has known for years, placed higher costs on residents and businesses. One the DWP Commission, from which he resigned last year, he proposed a ratepayer’s advocate to challenge rising costs and poor spending decisions. “City Hall killed the ratepayer’s advocate,” he told the Valley groups at the candidate forum. “My other [DWP] commissioners got the signal from City Hall, killing my proposal.”

In fact, some observers of this fire-versus-ice race for city controller believe that’s what finally caused him to challenge Greuel’s coronation-to-be.

Now the question is, can a fed-up Greek who says things like “Look in my Web!” really take on the friendly pixie of City Hall? Nobody knows, since the Los Angeles Times poll was disbanded last fall and private polls are notoriously slanted.

Greuel is having none of it, saying that while she would never take victory for granted, “voters want someone who can hit the ground running, and that’s me.” Still, Greuel’s camp seems worried, which may explain why Villaraigosa, with whom she has a tight relationship, has not appeared at some of her recent photo ops. Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime political consultant who knows Patsaouras, says Patsaouras’ new campaign ad now airing on CNN “talks about the City Hall machine in which the mayor and Greuel and [city attorney candidate] Jack Weiss are all connected to each other. I can see where [Wendy’s] campaign management would say, ‘Let’s not reinforce that she might rubber-stamp the mayor, by showing her again and again with him.’”

LA Weekly