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Is Riordan Creating a New Committee of Twenty-Five to Run the City?

August 07, 1994|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden is a senior fellow at the Institute of Leadership Studies at Loyola-Marymount University and author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)

The second year of the Riordan administration promises to be more controlled and more in conflict with the city's established powers. It also threatens to be secretive, is in danger of serious conflicts of interest and is moving in the direction of recreating the Committee of Twenty-Five that once ran Los Angeles.

The problem is that Richard Riordan is trying to become an effective politician in a governmental structure designed to protect us from him. Decision-making power is dispersed, and the professional civil service will outlast him and other elected officials. The effect is to dilute his potential for achievement.

Today's urban reformers, in contrast to the Progressives who drew up the City Charter, seek to overcome entrenched interests by granting more power to mayors--who can be held accountable by all the voters--and more power to neighborhoods to help people regain some control over their lives. The trend is to limit the authority of city councils, which can be captured by business interests, and professional bureaucracies.

While Riordan believes neighborhoods must ultimately solve their own problems, he would not empower them. Instead, he would keep government out of the hands of the "politicians"--that is, the City Council--and of the civil servants by shifting power to an elite business community safe from accountability, even identity. In turning to the private sector to raise large sums of money for his task forces--for upgrading departments' technology and for sprucing up the official mayor's residence--Riordan is creating a new oligarchy.

Creating a partnership between government and the private sector may well be both noble and appropriate at a time when the city's coffers are low and the demand for change is strong. Indeed, cutting through red tape does make things happen, but subverting city government is no way to reform it.

The question of a public-private partnership is complicated. An obvious disadvantage is the possibility of a conflict of interest. If we don't know who's making the decisions, or contributing large sums of money, we don't know whether or not there is a conflict.

Still, many people would like to contribute time, expertise and money to the city, and there ought to be a way to satisfy their desires and meet city needs. A traditional approach is to route private resources to private groups--programs for the homeless, gang rehabilitation, extra opportunities for kids--or to business experts helping struggling businesses. Another would be to establish a public foundation, to which anyone could contribute, though with limits of, say, $1,000 per individual and $5,000 per organization. The identities of all contributors would be disclosed. A third course would be to follow the example of L.A. Works and encourage people to contribute themselves one day a month, or one day a year, to paint a day-care center or plant trees.

The complex issues of how to distribute public resources among competing interests do not lend themselves to volunteer activity. This is a job for elected or appointed officials acting in an approved, public manner. Such decision-making can be messy and rarely produces clear victories, which explains why some of Riordan's private task forces have either failed to submit proposals he thought realistic, or have grown frustrated with the mayor's inability to implement their recommendations.

The urge to raise millions of dollars from a select group of contributors for a desirable and popular goal--like upgrading the technology of the Los Angeles Police Department--is understandable. The strength of the Committee of Twenty-Five was that it was powerful, knew what it wanted and could make it happen for the "greater good." It was also elitist and failed to understand others. But whether the community numbers 25 or 100; whether it is composed of rich, white men or a mix of ethnicities and genders, it is not democracy.

If Riordan believes that neighborhoods must solve their own day-to-day problems, he needs to devise an infrastructure that makes it possible for people to work together at the local level. This is a formidable task, since the capacity to develop and sustain organizations varies from neighborhood to neighborhood.

There are some areas of the city that have no local organizations, while there are some ethnic groups who believe that any participation in city government is tantamount to criminal activity. What Los Angeles needs is hundreds of committees of twenty-five, each working in its own neighborhood, backed by city authority and resources.

In his second year, Riordan should move out to the communities of the city rather than rely on the private sector he knows firsthand to circumvent the public sector his administration distrusts. He needs a staff with political skills, not one that prefers closed doors and few participants. Success for Riordan--and for us--will depend on his ability as a politician, not his talent as a businessman.

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