In the highest-profile debate so far in the Los Angeles mayoral race, three longtime city officials defended their records Monday night as two long-shot challengers accused them of putting the city on a path to insolvency.

The city's chronic budget shortfalls dominated the event at UCLA's Royce Hall, televised live on KNBC-TV Channel 4. Entertainment lawyer Kevin James and technology executive Emanuel Pleitez sought to maximize the free media exposure, portraying themselves as fresh alternatives to business as usual at City Hall.

James, a former radio talk-show host, described himself as an independent and accused rivals Wendy Greuel, Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry — all veteran elected officials — of being cozy with unions representing the city workforce.

"Bankruptcy doesn't happen overnight," said James, the only Republican in the race. "This happened over a period of time and it happened because of a series of bad decisions."