On a rainy Monday morning early this month, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and a coalition of City Council members announced the creation of a committee to begin the process of reforming the City Charter.
The sparsely attended press conference made barely a blip in the day's news. It marked the beginning, however, of what may turn out to be the most profound change in city governance since the beginning of the century.
The Charter is the city's constitution. It concerns the distribution of power. Unlike the federal Constitution, it is not written in broad principles, but deals very specifically in how public goods, services and responsibilities are distributed. The last Charter was approved in 1925 and has been amended more than 400 times. Almost from the beginning, there have been reform efforts--the last major attempt went down to defeat 20 years ago.
The call for reform comes, in part, from the work of the Commission to Draft a Code of Ethics for Los Angeles City Government, initiated in the wake of questions about Bradley's mixing of public and private business. The commission sensed frustration on the part of those who testified before it--frustration reflecting problems of structure as much as ethics. People were concerned about access, about getting decisions made, about having control over their own lives and neighborhoods. They were concerned about the influence of special interests and the complex nature--literally and geographically--of local government in Los Angeles.
The mayor and some members of the City Council--President John Ferraro, Richard Alatorre, Marvin Braude, Ruth Galanter and Michael Woo--are not the only voices calling for Charter reform: In addition to the Ethics Commission's report, which will be published in a few months, there was the report of the LA 2000 Committee calling for a restructuring of city and county relationships.
The arguments add up to a call for Charter reform. But if we are going to revise the Charter, should we even bother with ethics reform?
Some of the problems are inherent in democracy and will never be entirely resolved. The need for order and a central authority that can make decisions, for instance, will always conflict with the desire for local control.
The current Charter was based on the society from which it came. Los Angeles in the Progressive Era (roughly the 1870s to the 1920s) was not the city it is today. At the time, it was advertised to newcomers as "the most American city in the nation." The bulk of immigrants at the end of the 19th Century came from the Midwest, carrying with them the extraordinary hopes of the time that technology and organization could solve any problem. Right-minded people would make the right decisions, it was assumed, and economy and efficiency would prevail.
The Progressive city structure brought in initiative, recall, citizen commissions and the notion of professionalism--then gaining hold in medicine, law and other fields. In general, the period created strong governors and weak mayors and eliminated partisan elections at the local level.
The 1925 Charter did not take form all of a piece. Initiative, petition and recall were passed in Los Angeles in 1903, and Los Angeles provided the base for the Progressive sweep of the state in 1910, putting Hiram W. Johnson in the governor's chair and creating what most Americans have come to think of as California's political culture.
So what's wrong now?
Two obvious problems: The notion of "right-minded people" presumed, in this case, a white, homogenous, middle-class society. There is no provision for balancing--or even recognizing--different values and needs. And today we have different expectations of the role of government. Progressive reformers used government to settle problems: Government recognized an issue, drafted a law and brought balance to the relationships between competing interests, usually by regulation. Government provided solutions, not services.
Today, we expect government to sort out conflicting interests and take care of those who are too weak to take care of themselves. We also expect it to look out for the greater good, putting the interests of the majority above "special interests."
Today we also recognize there are limits to what government can do. Government resources are strained. We have lost much of the faith in institutions and technology that guided our Progressive predecessors. And just as important, we are not a white, homogenous, middle-class society. Los Angeles is one of the most ethnically diverse city in the world, and there is some danger it will become a two-tiered structure, with a wide gap between the races in class and economic strength.