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L.A. CITY ELECTIONS: Proposition 8, Citizens Charter
Reform Commission

Charter Reform Measure Deserves Voter Support

Born in a grudge match, it offers process for real change

March 16, 1997

At a bloated 680 pages, the deficiencies in Los Angeles's 72-year-old city charter are painfully apparent. The layers of overlapping authority, lack of accountability and a maze of minutely detailed procedures have made city officialdom sluggish and inept in responding to problems big and small. From filling potholes and trimming trees to guiding urban development or reforming the police department, the city bureaucracy moves like molasses.

There is no question the charter needs a thoroughgoing review and rewrite. The only question is how to do it.

Proposition 8 was born of the grinding grudge match between Mayor Riordan and the current City Council. Riordan has promoted and bankrolled this measure; it seems to have less to do with a search for the best method to revise the charter than with an effort to trump the council and upstage its own handpicked charter reform commission, which is now at work.

Many council members hold fast to the fiction that with occasional tinkering, the existing city charter works just fine. They insist that Riordan's interest in charter reform is an unseemly power grab, even though both the mayor and council members know that any changes voters ratify would affect their successors, not them. The council nonetheless convened its own commission last year in a failed effort to undermine the signature-gathering campaign the mayor had launched to put Proposition 8 on the ballot.

We see clear strengths and weaknesses in both the mayor's and the council's reform plans. That said, however, we support Proposition 8, the Riordan-backed measure. And should it pass, we strongly encourage the commission that subsequently convenes to work with the council's ongoing commission. Only with such cooperation, we believe, will come thoughtful--and productive--reform.

Proposition 8 asks voters if they want to elect a commission to propose a new charter. Also on the April 8 ballot are candidates for a seat on that commission in each of the 15 council districts. If Proposition 8 passes, the winners from each district will convene as a commission and serve without pay. The panel's recommendations must be delivered to the City Council within two years. The council, in turn, must submit the proposed charter to city voters without changes. That's a clear strength of this measure, in contrast to the rules under which the City Council's commission operates, allowing the council to essentially bury recommendations it doesn't like.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that the commissioners elected on April 8 (or in June if runoffs are necessary) will have the background and skills to draft and promote the sort of wholesale charter revisions the city needs. By contrast, the City Council's appointed commission does include some members with interest and expertise in this subject. The council commission hired an executive director last month, but since convening in October it has displayed distressingly little initiative and momentum, raising concerns that it reflects the council's own reluctance to engage in serious charter reform.

Two charter reform panels may not be better than one, especially if bickering between the two groups squanders the limited attention span most residents will give to this subject. But there is no barrier to informal cooperation between these panels, and indeed it would amplify each group's strengths and expertise. Discussions toward this end have already taken place between members of the council's commission and the mayor's staff. They should continue, along with aggressive efforts to engage the public in this reform effort. Without the active participation and support of homeowner associations, churches, community groups, PTAs and others, both commissions may find their considered conclusions will do little more than gather dust. And this city that desperately needs to function better cannot afford to wait.

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