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Los Angeles' Version of Guns Versus Butter

June 02, 1996|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press.)

For three years, the Riordan administration has single-mindedly pursued the goal of a larger Los Angeles Police Department. But it is increasingly apparent that the mayor is going to be denied his ambition. A majority on the City Council, fearing that the city cannot, in the long term, afford a larger force, has put the brakes on the LAPD's growth rate. In so doing, the council may have taken a bold step toward a more active leadership role in city governance.

In explaining its opposition to the popular cause of hiring more police officers, the council expanded the definition of public safety to include more than additional cops on the street. Secure parks, clean neighborhoods, fewer liquor stores and cheap motels also contribute to a community's sense of safety, it contended.

There is a lot of debate about why the fear of crime has risen while its frequency has fallen. But many on the council simply concluded that Richard Riordan's approach to crime is too expensive. The mayor's budget drained just about every city department to pay for more cops--and still Riordan's goal of 3,000 more officers would be unmet.

Cops and prisons are a last resort. Using them as the first line of defense is a recognition that civil society is teetering on the edge of disorder. The City Council, in voting for cleaner streets and neighborhoods rather than more cops, may have just been rationalizing its fiscal resistance. It may also have recognized that city government can be most influential in combating crime when addressing its probable causes.

Within the command staff of the Police Department, and in the Police Protective League, a slower pace of recruitment may be a welcome development after five years in the public spotlight. The department is too small, to be sure, but it also lacks the basic resources of a modern police department--an issue the mayor and council have begun to take up. It needs to rebuild morale, and although opinions differ on how to go about it, the truth that everyone but Riordan admits is that the time needed to revitalize the LAPD exceeds the tenure of his administration.

The best outcome of the budget battle would be a dramatically changed relationship between the mayor and the council. The council's capacity to reorder the mayor's budget has less to do with the City Charter than with the poor political links between the two branches of government. The responsibility for that rests with the mayor.

Riordan entered office with the idea that he was the city's chief executive officer; three years later, he has yet to fully accept the fact that most of the city's formal governmental authority rests with the council. His unwillingness, so far, to respect its collective power has alienated too many individual council members. After all his council-bashing--and the loss of his most articulate staff member, Michael D. Keeley--he has managed to create his own worst nightmare: a working council coalition against him.

In L.A. politics, it generally takes hostility toward the mayor to create a working coalition on the City Council, because members have few overlapping interests beyond dividing everything by 15. A mayor can do a lot when a council coalition supports him, as Tom Bradley did in his early years as mayor. Lacking such a support group, the mayor can do little more than blame the council for everything that doesn't go his way.

Now that his 1997 goal of an 11,000-man LAPD is beyond reach, maybe the mayor will recognize that he needs to develop a personal relationship with each member of the City Council. It would help if he hired a seasoned political aide or two, but his relationships with council members must be more direct than that. It would also help if he looked for areas where there is the possibility of agreement with the council and build on them. One issue is the development of neighborhood community organizations. There are different strategies on how to achieve such a goal, and how much power neighborhoods should really have, but there is also a lot of common ground.

If Riordan fails to change his attitude and behavior toward the council, it seems quite clear the council has the capacity--and the resolve--to lead on its own. A complicated process, admittedly, requiring each council member to trust 14 others, but the City Council is moving in that direction. Each skirmish with the mayor makes that ever more obvious.*

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