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Larger City Council Needed

August 21, 1986

Increasing the membership of the Los Angeles City Council is a cause worth pursuing. Dan Shapiro's article (Editorial Pages, July 31) offers several sound arguments as to why a change is needed. Solidly based American traditions also call for truly representative councils in our local governments.

Ballot propositions aside, local government is virtually the only means by which common people can participate directly in democracy. Yet, in 20th-Century developments, even this avenue for the average citizen has been barred in all but the smallest places. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is an important institution of government, but as local government it is a travesty. The City Council is almost as far removed from anything that could justifiably be called local democracy.

It was not always this way. As urban America grew from villages to giant cities during the 19th Century, genuine efforts were made to maintain representativeness. This was done primarily in two ways: first by using a two-house council in most large cities and in many small ones; and secondly, by frequently increasing the membership size of the lower house.

In those days, the central business district merchants, and the financiers, builders and land developers dominated the small upper house, which was commonly elected at large. But something was set aside for the common people: the large lower house elected by wards, which were usually drawn along class and ethnic-group lines. (Often a boss and machine system was superimposed upon this arrangement. This actually improved its representativeness, for bosses had a political interest in providing voices for every ethnic group. Reformers, however, mistakenly associated large councils with bossism, though the latter in fact came much later.)

How large were these councils? The upper houses were around nine, rarely larger than 20. The lower houses were something else: 73 members in New York prior to 1937; 120 in Philadelphia until 1919; 42 in Detroit before 1918; 70 in Chicago until 1921 (and still the largest council in the nation at 50). Cincinnati, until 1925, had 32 council members with 400,000 population. Dozens of other cities, large and small, had similar large councils. True, there were two traditions. Some cities, especially in the West (with its then smaller cities), never had very large councils, but these were also cities that generally had much simpler problems of representation because of fewer ethnic groups.

What happened to concern for small-district representation at the local level? In brief, it was overridden by reformers. Conservative reformers, beginning in the late 19th Century, were interested in efficiency and economy for local government, and they wanted to get rid of the boss system. But they had no desire to maintain access and representation for the average citizen.

They wanted small councils, preferably chosen at large and with a minimum of politics involved in elections. They increased the visibility and power of the individual council member, but removed him or her far from everyday contact with the average voter. With expensive elections at-large or by huge districts, as in Los Angeles today, the council member necessarily became oriented toward those who could and would make large campaign contributions.

And no one had greater incentive to do this than the people most concerned with the most important power of the modern council--control over land use. By the mid-1930s, almost all American cities had small councils--and one more doorway of access to local government had been closed to the average citizen.

Ironically, representation was given another setback as a result of that old bugaboo in politics, unanticipated consequences. In the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court came up with the rule of "one-person, one-vote." This was a blow struck against the gerrymander, but it resulted in an obsession with achieving council districts completely equal in population. That would have made democratic sense, except that it created districts that often were meaningless in terms of class, income, or ethnic integrity. The resulting goulash districts did less representing by far than had the districts of the last century, with their class and ethnic criteria.

Los Angeles could lead the way for the nation in reestablishing the City Council as a body that actually represents the people who live within its borders. A start could be made by at least doubling the size of the council.; This would put the "local" back into government. At the same time, it would make it possible to make some political sense out of the judicial equal head-count rule. Such a counter reform could be accomplished at little cost, except to some interest group leaders, bureaucrats, and council members who find the present system a cozy working arrangement for themselves.


Professor of Political Science

University of California


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