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How Los Angeles Can Become a More Perfect City

March 23, 1997|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California, chairman of the State Sesquicentennial Commission, and a member of the faculty at USC

Come April 8, the citizens of Los Angeles, in voting for 15 members to sit on a Charter Reform Commission, will have the opportunity to pass from the city's current articles of confederation to a more effective constitution, hence a more lasting civic identity.

The analogy is not farfetched. The Articles of Confederation governed the United States between 1781 and 1789. Adopted at a time of war, when the future shape of the United States was still uncertain, the Articles of Confederation called for a weak chief executive and direct rule by the Congress in matters pertaining to joint action by the states. Not yet a nation, the United States was ambivalent toward central authority and an equal balance of powers.

The current 892-page City Charter was written, in 1925, at a time of comparable ambivalence. Thrust from a regional center of fewer than 100,000 to a city of a million-plus in less than three decades, the Los Angeles of the 1920s was highly ambivalent, at least in political terms, toward its new-found status as the fifth-largest city in the United States. Like an adolescent sprung to six feet, it was at once proud and uncertain of its growth.

Still, Los Angeles had wanted it that way. The city, after all, had deliberately created its deep-water port in 1900, had deliberately tapped the Owens River via its aqueduct in 1913, had deliberately annexed Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, Wilmington-San Pedro, Venice and Watts and was casting covetous eyes on Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, which were resisting annexation.

At the same time, the political force that had created Los Angeles in this era--Progressivism--nurtured in its heart of hearts a profound distrust of big-city government and politics. Largely upper-middle class and Protestant in origin, professional in education and status, the Progressives abhorred the extremes of both immigrant-dominated big labor and robber-baron capitalism. Like the senators of Venice when that city ruled the Adriatic, the Progressives of Los Angeles favored governance by an appointive oligarchy, with the mayor serving as a little more than a ceremonial doge and the City Council a mere claque of commoners gathering in the square to ratify the decisions of the hereditary elite.

So Progressive L.A. fashioned a charter that deliberately kept the mayor weak and neutralized the City Council by distracting it with pseudo-administrative prerogatives that gave council members the illusion, not the reality, of control. Real power was vested in appointed commissions and department heads tenured through Civil Service. The Department of Water and Power, the Harbor Commission, the Police Department and other key commissions and agencies served as the city's de facto government.

After 72 years under a charter designed by a vanished elite, Los Angeles faces, in urban terms, the same challenge that the United States faced in 1787 when it chose delegates to convene in Philadelphia and form, as the Constitution they drafted would later put it, a more perfect union. For years, Los Angeles has known that its Charter is cumbersome, outmoded, ineffective. It has coped by placing before the voters hundreds of micro-amendments, expanding the Charter to its present prolixity. As in the case of 1787, however, when the Constitutional Convention was called, certain forces in the city have coalesced to cry out for change.

The San Fernando Valley secessionist movement, for one thing, has given the city a wake-up call. Unless city government can be made more effective--at once, responsively localized in things appropriate to districts and more centralized in things pertaining to the city as a whole--sections of the city, led by the Valley, might remove themselves.

Second is the force represented by Mayor Richard Riordan. He has found himself hamstrung by the chiefly ceremonial role he has been asked to play. A mayor coming up through the ranks, such as a Tom Bradley, seasoned to the culture of the 1925 Charter, might be expected to back the City Council in the charter-reform debate, as Bradley has done. Riordan, by contrast, given his nature and past career as a high-powered entrepreneur, might be expected to bring the charter into a more balanced and effective alignment of executive, legislative, appointive and civil service power.

Riordan likes to quote UCLA political scientist James Q. Wilson. There are four forms of local government--indeed, government in general--Wilson has said: an honest government with complex rules; an honest government with simple rules; a dishonest government with complex rules, and dishonest government with simple rules. Of these four, the first option, the L.A. option--basically honest government with self-defeating complex rules--is the worst. "Everywhere I go in city government," Riordan says, "I see the city, most often with the best intentions, spending $1.50 to save $1."

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