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Politics Threatens to Kill Charter Reform Even Before It Starts

August 25, 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.)

Current efforts to rewrite the City Charter are in serious danger of failing even before we consider what the reforms will be. Disagreement over how to achieve a desirable end may destroy another opportunity to change the city's governmental structure, because success at charter reform requires all parties to work together. Those who will ultimately be affected by a reinvented city government must be present at its creation. The whole city--every ethnic group, every class, every neighborhood, every interest, every part of the government--must be involved. If there was ever a time when the city's elected officials need to rise above politics as usual, it is now.

The latest call for charter reform grew out of the secessionist "movement" in the San Fernando Valley. A perceived lack of access to City Hall, the heart of the secession justification, could better be managed by rewriting the document that created the government that fosters such political alienation. After all, the Valley's sense of political isolation is hardly unique in the city.

The problem is that the City Council and the mayor are at odds over how to go about solving the problem. Mayor Richard Riordan doesn't trust the council to write a charter-reform proposal that would seriously weaken its authority. Consequently, he believes that any plan to revamp city government must bypass the council. One way to accomplish this would be to elect a commission in a citywide vote, which, under state law, would then be entitled to place its work directly before the voters.

In contrast, the City Council, in a proposal authored by its president, John Ferraro, would appoint a commission, with or without the mayor's input, and provide that its recommended charter reforms go on the ballot after they were reviewed by the council. If there were differences, the council's objections would also go on the ballot.

Appointing, rather than electing, a charter commission has certain advantages. It would ensure that its members balance broad interests in the city and that they have some knowledge of and experience in city government. State law allows for both methods, but Riordan contends that the council's approach has never been tested.

Yet, the law is not really the issue. Politics is. The mayor and the council have an uneasy relationship, at best. It has been exacerbated in the debate over how to get charter reform going.

The proposal to appoint a charter-reform commission was originally considered by the council. It was the subject of a committee hearing. But without notice, its chief sponsor and advocate before the council, David Fleming, appeared at a news conference with the mayor and declared that the council could not be trusted in the matter. Far better to go the petition route to elect a commission. Maybe, it was even suggested, the City Council could be eliminated altogether.

Council members were outraged. The council is, after all, an elected body whose members have many years of experience. Los Angeles wants reform, not revolution. It wants an enduring balance of powers, not a governmental structure made inoperable by anti-government enthusiasts.

While Riordan's concerns have a basis in history (the city's councils have never been reform-friendly), there is one reason to believe that this City Council would be more willing to look at the big picture--term limits. Most of the council members will be leaving office, or in their last term, before any new charter would go into effect. There is also the question of their legacy. Not everyone agrees that the charter should be reformed, but some want to run for mayor (all the more reason to strengthen the mayor's power). Others simply want to retire from political office in the belief that they have done the best they could for district and city. Honor is their motive.

The tragedy is that charter reform, which should bring the city together, will not succeed if there are rival proposals to bring it about. Riordan's proposal seems more democratic, but it raises serious questions: Would the elected commissioners represent the whole city, or mostly voters from the Westside and the Valley? Would they be knowledgeable about city government, or the angriest toward it? Would they be the richest, or those who represent the city's labor unions or homeowner associations?

The council and mayor seem willing to negotiate, but they are also determined to proceed with their own proposals if talks fail. Odds are that their proposals would resemble earlier ones: a stronger mayor; a greater voice for neighborhoods; a simpler, more straightforward document that would eliminate the need to go to the voters for every change, and clearer definition of agencies' roles.

The issue of charter reform, however, is not just the outcome; it's the process by which we achieve that outcome.

If there can be no guarantee in law, there are such things as moral and political commitments. If two commissions go to work, there will be no charter. There will be no legacy for anyone. No one will win. Least of all Los Angeles.

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