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Political Paralysis--Los Angeles City Fathers Wanted It This Way : City Hall: It was a vastly different city in 1925, when the current patterns for government were cut; it's time for some changes.

May 12, 1991|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden is a visiting scholar at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School

Each episode in the continuing drama surrounding the beating of Rodney G. King reveals how ungovernable Los Angeles has become. Now we have the resignation of Police Commission President Dan Garcia, who blamed the City Charter for the mess we're in.

There are several questions now before the city. The first is the relationship of the Los Angeles Police Department to the citizens of the city. The second is: Who really runs City Hall? In all the maneuvering, we have seen the weakness of the mayor's office in its authority over city departments, such as the LAPD, and the City Council's lack of authority over the city's commissions.

Nobody appears to be able to do anything to anyone. And that is exactly what our Progressive city fathers had in mind: a diffusion of power so complete that it could not be abused. They had a lot of experience with the abuse of power at the turn of the century, when both major political parties, the government and much of the economic life of the city and the state were under the thumb of the Southern Pacific Railroad and its allies.

The charter that governs the city of Los Angeles was passed in 1925, a reflection of Progressive expectations about the role of city government and the nature of the population to be governed. To the Progressives, city government was about administration, not politics. The right people in office would make the right decisions.

If we eliminated the unseen control of the bosses, right-minded people would step forward to set the policy on the basic services for which the city was responsible: streets, water and power, police protection and so on. The actual running of the government would be left to professional managers. Civil-service protection was a guard against the undue influence of politics.

There was a great deal of attention paid to democracy, but what the Progressives meant by increasing democracy through the mechanisms of recall, initiative and referendum--as well as the citizen commissions--was increasing the participation of the right people. In contrast, what we mean today when we say we are increasing democracy is increasing the number of participants.

The difference becomes significant when we look at the populations involved. In the Progressive Era--from the 1870s to the 1920s--Los Angeles was the most white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant city in the country. Today, it is the most ethnically diverse city in the world. The Progressive legacy is a streamlined structure that makes minimal allowance for politics, which also means there are no mediating institutions that can form coalitions or foster consensus. It works when there is consensus. It does not work when there are differences of opinion about how to achieve certain ends, or even what ends to seek. It does not work when there are so many groups seeking to have an impact on the system.

This is not to say that power can never be exercised in Los Angeles--only that it is hard to amass it through the formal structure of government. Throughout its history, the power has remained in the business community and the civic associations it fosters. But in a crisis of government, that is not enough.

The power of the business Establishment may be sufficient when it comes to economic growth. While it has been conservative over the years in many respects, it has also been liberal with its willingness to provide leadership and resources to social problems. It has the power to promote change and bring various leaders to the table, but that is not necessarily sufficient to solve governmental crises such as the one at hand.

That there are problems in the police department is unquestioned. No responsible person condones the King beating or the apparent pattern of racially biased beatings. Once the frustration and rage of those who are oppressed by the police department emerged, however, what was needed was political leadership. We didn't have much.

The probabilities worked against such leadership emerging because no one has authority to act quickly and responsibly. Appointing a commission to look into the matter was a fine step. Appointing several commissions blurred the horizon and reflected the fact that each side in this crisis wanted to take unto itself the mantle of leadership. The plain truth was that no side had the authority to do that.

The City Council undermined the separation of powers that the City Charter envisions when it claimed authority to settle legal disputes and ordered the city attorney to settle with Police Chief Daryl F. Gates on terms that favored him over the Police Commission. If this tactic were applied in other circumstances, anyone who gets an unfavorable reading from a city commission could threaten to sue, and then move the dispute up to the City Council where the politics are different and much more amenable to certain kinds of influence.

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