Hed — Happy trails

You’ve just been hired as chief executive of a major corporation. You sign a 5-year employment contract that clearly specifies that at the end of the term, both sides have the option of not renewing. Your management record at the company is decidedly mixed, and after four and a half years, the company’s board elects not to pick up your option.

The CEO walks. End of discussion.

But that’s not the way it works at L.A. City Hall. There, employment contracts are still considered more of a concept than a way of doing business. Which helps explain the confusion last week after the Police Commission voted unanimously not to extend the term of Chief Willie Williams for another five years.

Rather than focusing on a replacement for Williams, much of the attention centered on how Williams would respond to the commission’s decision. Would he lobby the City Council to find the necessary 10 votes to overturn the commission? Would he turn to the public, which has a curiously high regard for him? Would he try to negotiate a multimillion-dollar severance package over and above anything he is entitled to? Or would he just sue the city?

Los Angeles has a long, unhappy history of employees who challenge terminations often through litigation. And the city, all too often, has a tendency to pony up often on the flimsiest of evidence.

The most embarrassing example of an employee holding the city hostage was Williams’ predecessor, Daryl Gates.

After having first promised to retire and make room for Williams, Gates abruptly changed course. “Screw you,” he said at one point. “I’ll retire when I want to retire.”

Of course, that was before passage of Charter Amendment F in 1992, which changed city regulations to eliminate any property interest that the chief has in the job. Today, a police chief has no claim that his rights of due process are being violated if he isn’t reappointed for another 5-year term.

It would seem cut-and-dried. But remember, this is Los Angeles.

For months, Williams has had a legal team that’s been openly critical of the commission’s deliberations and implying that, if not reappointed, the chief might consider litigation. Councilman Nate Holden has accused the commission of acting improperly, claiming that “a kangaroo court met and lynched Police Chief Willie Williams.”

Thankfully, most of Council members show little interest in upending the commission decision. And while a lawsuit is always a possibility, Williams will have to consider the practicalities of such a move: Lawsuits are expensive and the law clearly is not on his side.

Willie Williams has done much to salve the department’s negative public image and given the fallout from O.J. Simpson and other high-profile cases, that’s no small feat. But the commission was wise in not ignoring the managerial deficiencies that Williams has been unable or unwilling to address. Ultimately, the city needs more than a front-man running the LAPD.

That the commission recognized as much should be applauded and not derided as kangaroo justice. Now it’s time for the termination to be accepted and for a new chief, preferably from within the LAPD ranks, to be selected.

It’s also time for Willie Williams to move on.

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