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L.A. mayor candidates tone it down for radio debate

February 6, 2013 |  9:32 pm

The leading candidates for mayor of Los Angeles have dialed up their rhetoric as a March 5 primary draws closer, but they are still little known to a large number of voters in the city and remain determined to make a good first impression.

That helps explain the mostly civil tone that re-emerged Wednesday night as the contenders squared off in a debate sponsored by KPCC-FM (89.3) radio in Pasadena and moderated by Larry Mantle.

As with the last debate broadcast widely to the public--last week's forum at UCLA that was televised by KNBC-TV Channel 4 — the  candidates focused mostly on themselves, rather than attacking their opponents.

After the UCLA debate, political consultants noted that the candidates appeared to mute their critiques so as not to appear too abrasive or do anything that might disqualify them in the minds of voters tuning in for the first time. That dynamic remained in place Wednesday. Even though there is now less than a month until the primary election, most voters are still thought to not be following the campaign closely.

The well-mannered tone stood in sharp contrast to a debate this Monday night in Los Feliz, when entertainment lawyer Kevin James repeatedly hammered City Controller Wendy Greuel for her position on a city parking program that once dismissed parking tickets at the behest of the mayor and City Council members.

James said that Greuel had helped support the “Gold Card Desk” that fixed the tickets of the well-connected and also charged that members of her staff took advantage of the special treatment. News reports in 2011 showed that Greuel’s press deputy had fixed a ticket for his mother.

But the city controller said she deserved credit for exposing the abuses of the parking program and noted that it had been ended by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa immediately after her review.

The tempest over the parking program, which Councilwoman Jan Perry joined Wednesday with a mailer attacking Greuel, did not get a mention in the KPCC forum. Instead, Mantle tried to bore in on the candidates to talk in more detail about how they would fix the city’s pension systems and balance a budget estimated to be about $220 million in deficit.

Mantle asked for specific numbers from the candidates on how much they believed city employees should contribute to their healthcare and pensions.

Councilman Eric Garcetti pointed to his past work negotiating pension and healthcare reform, noting that he pushed some city workers to contribute 11% to their retirement costs, and said that in a poor economy, they may have to contribute more. Pushed for a number, he demurred.

“I think my point is it depends where the economy is at,” he said, adding that it would be lazy to only consider taxes and cuts rather than raising revenue through growing the economy.  “I would not lower where we’re at.”

Greuel said she would consider caps on pension payments, and models in which employees must invest more in their retirements if the pension system is not earning an adequate return.

“There are models out there where there is that shared responsibility of when times are bad, people to contribute more,” she said.

Perry gave the most specific answer, saying employees must contribute 11% to their retirement costs and 10% to their healthcare costs, and that those numbers represented a “place to start. It’s a floor, not the ceiling.”

She added that if the economy is humming, additional city revenues should not be funneled into growing the city workforce but into paying the bills the city already has.

“You have to start with some principle," said Perry. "The principle should hold the line. You don’t run out immediately and hire more people. You may restore funding for programs or social services, like libraries, recreation or parks, but you don’t hire more people,” she said. “This is a chance if we get a windfall … to catch up and make up for what we’ve lost.”

James said the current pension system is among the reasons the city is close to bankruptcy, and that some of the risk must be moved off taxpayers and onto employees, possibly through a 401(k)-style program. “That’s something we should first try to negotiate with our city unions, all of them at the same table,” he said.

Former technology executive Emanuel Pleitez proposed a pension buyout plan, where the city would borrow money to offer lump sums to workers today to get the liability off the books. Workers would take part because they have no guarantee that their pensions are secure, given the city’s financial circumstances, he said. Then the city must move to a 401(k)-style retirement program where workers contribute 50% of the cost.

“We need to simplify it and give worker some options,” he said.

The more civil tone did not come without some barbs.

James and Pleitez continued to attack the three elected officials as part of a City Hall regime that has failed.

After Garcetti and Perry suggested that some progress has been made in their districts, particularly on economic development, James objected.

“We don’t get to the second worst roads in America with all the improvements they have been talking about up here,” James said. “You get to the second worst roads in America because they have failed.”

Pleitez described Garcetti, Greuel and Perry’s decades in office and said they had voted together 99% of the time. “We are on the brink of bankruptcy, we have the highest unemployment rate, the lowest high school graduation rate,” Pleitez said. “If you are happy with that, you have three great choices and if you’re not, I am here to present an alternative, a better way.”

Other swipes at the KPCC event were more subtle, like references to the Department of Water and Power and its unionized employees, who receive more pay than other city workers.

Perry and James both critiqued the department and the union workers who are major supporters of Greuel's candidacy.

“You know the DWP has been immune from pension reform in this city, and that’s not good for the city as a whole," James said, "it’s not good for our other city employees, and it’s just not good for morale across the board."

When host Mantle noted that the department has its own revenue source, James persisted, saying that the workers’ wages drive up city employees wages overall.

“DWP employees are making 40% plus higher than other city employees doing the same job, so even though they have their own proprietary budget they’re driving wages up unfairly for city taxpayers in the other general fund jobs,” he said.

Moments later, when Perry was asked whether public-sector employees should be treated differently than private-sector employees, she singled out the main DWP union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, by name.

“I look at IBEW, at our own Department of Water and Power and a lot of people joke and they’ll say IBEW runs the department, the department doesn’t run the department,” said Perry, who has long had a contentious relationship with the union’s leadership. “And the employees there, for comparable jobs, do ... make 40-plus percent more and their benefits package is better."


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-- James Rainey and Seema Mehta, reporting from Pasadena