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'City Hall is broken' sets tone for feisty mayoral debate

September 20, 2012 | 11:25 am

A few minutes into Wednesday night’s mayoral debate, candidate Kevin James gestured to his competitors.

“City Hall is broken,” James said. “And they broke it."

The former federal prosecutor and talk radio host, who is trailing in fundraising, did not hold back during the first debate of the mayoral race, often putting his opponents -- City Controller Wendy Greuel and council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti -- on the defensive.

Their responses on a variety of issues, including how to manage Hollywood’s growth and how to protect the film industry, highlighted their contrasting styles, if not their always-contrasting views.

The debate, sponsored by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, took place at the Taglyan Cultural Complex on Vine Street in a ballroom often used for wedding receptions.

When James came out swinging, criticizing city lawmakers for approving zoning changes that will allow denser building in Hollywood despite resistance from some in the community, Garcetti offered a philosophical response.

“We are so good in Los Angeles at saying what we are against, and we are not so good at saying what we are for,” he said.

Garcetti, who represents much of Hollywood, noted that the zoning guidelines had not been updated since 1988, and that more than 100 community meetings had been held on the matter. He called Hollywood "both a place and a metaphor," and took credit for the recent economic revitalization of the neighborhood.

Like Garcetti, Greuel said that jobs would have to be the priority of the next mayor, and like Garcetti, she said the city should offer more incentives to help the film industry.

But she portrayed herself as common-sense, saying the election is about getting back to basics. Taking a swipe at Garcetti, she noted that her ideas "may not sound sexy or slick or even visionary to some."

Greuel stressed her role as controller, where she has scrutinized an array of city activities, from employee fuel consumption to Fire Department response times.

After James pledged to start a hotline where people could report city waste and fraud -- and accused his opponents of doing too little to tamp out misconduct that he said has given Los Angeles “a national reputation for corruption" -- Greuel turned to him with a terse smile.

She told him the controller's office already has such a hotline, and said she has already uncovered $130 million in misspent dollars.

“I’ve peered into the deepest and darkest corners of our city departments,” Greuel said, adding that some of what she has found has been “embarrassing."

Perry seemed to enjoy James' attacks, at one point giving him an encouraging squeeze on the arm.

She took her own swipe at Garcetti when, speaking after him, she said: “If you want a candidate who will give you soft and pretty words, I’m not your candidate."

She reinforced one of James' complaints about high employee costs, saying she regretted her 2007 vote in favor of a new contract with city unions. Budget officials now say that vote gave employees raises the city can't afford.

But she balked when James suggested that lawmakers had approved rate hikes at the Department of Water and Power because they are afraid to stand up to the labor union that represents utility employees.

“Just for the record, my number is not on speed dial for Brian D’Arcy,” she said, alluding to the head of the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical  Workers. “He doesn’t even like me.”

After the speech, Perry noted that Greuel and Garcetti have benefited from spending by IBEW in previous elections.

Greuel and Garcetti are tied in fundraising, with each out-raising Perry about 2 to 1 and James by about 10 to 1, according to the most recent campaign filings.

A fifth candidate, Emanuel Pleitez, was excluded from the debate. He and about a dozen protesters chanted and carried signs on the sidewalk outside.

Debate organizers say Pleitez was not included because he wasn't a declared candidate when the debate was arranged earlier this year.


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-- Kate Linthicum twitter.com/katelinthicum