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More Power to the Neighborhoods--and to the Mayor

July 14, 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.)

The timing for political reform in Los Angeles is ideal. On the one hand, the crusade for neighborhood control is rapidly gaining momentum. On the other, a proposed Charter commission--a byproduct of citizen dissatisfaction in the San Fernando Valley--will inevitably strengthen the currently weak mayoral system. Both notions have the support of members of the City Council and the mayor, all of whom will be either out of office or in their last terms by the time reforms are implemented. It will be their legacy to the city.

Fittingly, the drive for neighborhood control is rising from the bottom up as well as from the council. The idea is certainly not novel. Neighbors meeting together to decide their fate and to allocate their resources is the image we have of early New England villages and of early American government.

In addition to reflecting a broader estrangement from government, the renewed interest in neighborhood control stems from the effects of urbanization, a fear of being overrun by unfamiliar cultures and impersonal institutions. In Los Angeles, the difficulty of exerting strong leadership at the top, coupled with a sense that the city is drifting, have contributed to greater enthusiasm for community government.

Legislation recently introduced by six council members is the first significant recognition of the movement for local control by government. It calls for basic logistic support--such as a place to meet, communications and staff help--for 103 neighborhood councils, with by-laws and procedures for electing representatives. Borrowing from the experiences of the "empowerment congress" in the 8th Councilmanic District, as well as from such U.S. cities as St. Paul, Birmingham, San Antonio and Seattle, the proposal calls for quarterly, citywide congresses and citizen participation on a wide range of issues, including law enforcement and budget-making.

The idea of neighborhood councils is ambitious, but Los Angeles may be uniquely suited to such governmental units. The city, after all, was laid out in neighborhoods as housing tracts followed streets, water and power. This history of the settlement of Los Angeles may provide some clues about how to imbue all residents of the city with a feeling of participating and belonging, of accepting diversity and of exercising control over their own lives.

But the city of Los Angeles--a huge, sprawling community--also needs more centralization, which is one reason why a new Charter commission would be a good idea. On its surface, the goal of decentralizing while centralizing seems contradictory. But the trend in urban reform around the country has been to do just that: strengthen mayors and neighborhoods. This combination ensures better accountability and enables citizens to feel a greater sense of control by giving voice to their communities. If these goals are merged, the City Charter commission could go to the neighborhood councils for input, taking to them issues of governance and trying the councils out as vehicles for local participation, and thereby experimenting with a new kind of city democracy.

There are already many advisory groups scattered around the city. The proposed councils should be broader in membership and legally armed to exert some real power, but that is something that must be explored and developed. It remains to be seen if such an undertaking can begin in a city plagued by frustration and sense of isolation.

It would be premature to speculate about possible changes in the Charter other than the devolution of more power to the neighborhoods and the allocation of more administrative authority to the mayor. But other possibilities include: reevaluating the role of city commissions as vehicles for management; analyzing the size and composition of the City Council; devising a clearer definition of responsibility among city departments; taking a new look at the city's civil-service structure, and deleting from the Charter those regulations that are more suited for incorporation into the administrative law code, which would eliminate the need to go to the voters every time there is a change.

None of this will be easy. It will require open discussions among all the stakeholders as early in the process as possible. Some issues will be irreconcilable. There is no ideal charter, no perfect solution to the governance of human beings. Democracy is a process as much as it is anything else. What matters for Los Angeles is that anyone who wants to participate, can.*

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