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Greuel takes brunt of jabs from opponents in mayoral debate

Wendy GreuelL.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel took the brunt of a series of sharp exchanges Wednesday night from her three top opponents in the campaign to be the next mayor of Los Angeles during a debate sponsored by the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn.

In perhaps the feistiest debate thus far in the campaign leading to the March 5 primary, two contenders suggested Greuel could not be independent because of financial support her candidacy will receive from one of the largest public employee unions.

A third competitor asked how Greuel could call for eliminating the city’s business tax without saying how she would make up the $400 million in lost revenue annually.

The shots at Greuel began with lawyer and former federal prosecutor Kevin James asking whether she had a conflict of interest in receiving financial aid from the union representing Department of Water and Power employees. James noted that Greuel had audited the agency as controller and approved pay raises when she was on the City Council.

But in a twist on the standard debate format, James asked City Councilman Eric Garcetti, not Greuel, to answer the question about the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18. The union has pledged to join with entertainment industry interests to run radio and TV ads in support of Greuel.

"When we see outside interests come in and try to buy elections, it is something for all of us to give pause and consider," Garcetti responded.

He also voiced support for public financing of campaigns. "If people spend a lot of money on you in an election, they aren't doing it just because they love you," he said. "They want something from you."

Greuel, speaking before a packed room at Notre Dame High School, retorted: “I am proud of what I have done as the city controller and the people I have gone after, including yes, the DWP.... I will continue to be an independent watchdog and continue to be that person that looks out for economic development” throughout the city.

A couple of minutes later, Garcetti doubled-down on the issue, asking Greuel to enter into a pledge that he said would reduce the influence of “independent expenditures and super PACS” in the campaign.

Mirroring a pledge in the recently completed U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, Garcetti said he and Greuel should agree to donate half of whatever outsiders pledged to a charity of the opponent's choice.

“I am willing to make this pledge with you tonight," Garcetti said. “Would you make that pledge with me?”

Appearing surprised, Greuel paused before saying that she had “no idea how much anyone is going to spend in this race” and that most of her own campaign money had come from small donors. She said that she would be “more than happy” to study the proposed pledge, but that she would concentrate first on issues of interest to voters.

“I appreciate the somewhat-of-a-gimmick that you have suggested tonight," Greuel added, “but I think the public wants to make sure we are talking about the issues that are important to our communities and to our neighborhoods.”

Greuel, who represented parts of the San Fernando Valley when she served on the City Council, received a strong round of applause for her response. But her competitors were not done with her. With the next mayor facing projected budget shortfalls of more than $200 million a year, Councilwoman Jan Perry asked Greuel to justify her proposal to abolish the city business tax, the source of more than $400 million in annual revenue used for police, fire and other services.

"Who makes up the difference?" Perry asked.

Greuel offered no details on how the city would make up for the lost revenue. But she vowed to abolish the tax "in a responsible way," saying a lighter tax burden on business would spur job growth.

The controller described herself as "business friendly," citing her family's ownership of a building supply company in North Hollywood. "I understand what it means, more than anyone else up here, how tough it is to make it in Los Angeles," she said.

When her turn came to pose a question, Greuel quipped that maybe she would continue her competitors' pattern and direct a question to herself. Instead, she asked Garcetti why he attacked one of her office’s audits about cellphone usage. She suggested that perhaps it was because Garcetti opposed complete transparency on fiscal matters.

Garcetti said his campaign had only targeted the length of time -- 10 months -- it took to complete the review.

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-- James Rainey and Michael Finnegan in Sherman Oaks

Photo: L.A. City Controller Wendy Greuel is shown at a news conference earlier this month. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

 
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