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The Test Charter Reform Must Pass: Show L.A. the Money

March 30, 1997|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.)

Los Angeles' governing problem is not that the mayor doesn't have enough power, nor that the neighborhoods don't have enough control, though, in both instances, more power and control are needed. What's really driving charter reform is that there isn't enough money to run city government effectively. The next biggest problem is the absence of any sensible strategy to cope with this fact of L.A. life.

It's not surprising, however, that candidates for the Charter Reform Commission are talking almost exclusively about how much power they want to redistribute--not what that power would control--since most Angelenos know little about how the city actually works. Mayor Richard Riordan's well-documented inability to get the City Council and department managers to do his bidding comes only partly from his lack of formal authority. But if there was enough money to go around--to provide for the services we expect a city to provide--even a mayor as unpolitical as Riordan could develop a relatively decent relationship with the council.

One never has "enough money," of course, and disagreements would still spring up over how the money should be spent. Although the city's economy is slowly recovering, city government has yet to benefit in any significant way from the new economic growth. Services that used to be regularly provided in parks or street clean-ups are hard to come by. The infrastructure has been in decline for decades, ever since passage of Proposition 13, and Proposition 218, which gives one-third of the voters veto power over new taxes. Add to this the decision-making process that the city's progressive fathers designed almost three-quarters of a century ago--and deciding what to fix, what to maintain and where to invest meager resources can be an enormously complicated and stressful undertaking.

The federal government's role in restricting the flexibility of city governments to raise and spend money shouldn't be overlooked. Besides all the regulations that mandate certain local expenditures, some federal programs--such as urban renewal, revenue sharing and, most recently, the Clinton administration's anti-crime initiative--require cities to spend in order to receive, which often puts them in a fiscal quandary. The City Council, for example, turned down additional police officers offered in the latest crime bill because their cost would devolve to the city after the first five years.

Whether it is taxes or job creation, such programs are not driven by the city--but by Washington. If the match fits, the city gains can be tremendous. If they fail, the city is usually left holding the bag, carrying the financial burden while local elected officials blame each other.

The changing demographic profile of the city helps accentuate the money problem, and thus also drives the movement to rewrite the City Charter. The civic culture that once dominated public life is shared by fewer and fewer Angelenos. Many immigrant communities retain memories of a different kind of culture, of a different kind of government. During the last major round of immigration a century ago, the local party machine integrated such communities into the political mainstream. Nowadays, there are no similar mechanisms for incorporating new arrivals. Every group is largely left to its own devices in a new country where survival can be a difficult enough proposition. In such circumstances, trying to understand the complexity of L.A. government in order to compete for its limited resources is an overwhelmingly difficult task.

Once the two charter-reform commissions--the one elected, the other appointed by the City Council--get down to work, they must go beyond the symptoms and the simple solutions of more power to the mayor and neighborhoods and less to the City Council. They cannot sit back and wait for residents to offer their good ideas, because few people, if any, have answers to the city's problems. Everyone wants a well-paid, well-cared-for work force, but the city simply cannot continue to afford a system that pays out in pension and retirement benefits everything it raises in property taxes.

No charter commission stands a chance of succeeding unless it brings everyone to the table, but the most important player is neither the mayor nor the council. It is the city employees. They know where the fat lies and the options for a better way exist. They know how they can be more efficient and more effective.

Above all, charter reform must get a handle on the costs of doing business. In the last 20 years, the city budget has grown from $1 billion to $4 billion, and its debt from $200,000 to more than $7 billion, according to a series in the Daily News. In lieu of new taxes, the city has turned to bonds, permits, fees and licenses for revenue, adding considerably to the costs and frustration of residents. The city is failing to collect 35% of the business taxes owed it because bureaucrats are so busy collecting other charges. A new charter will not necessarily revise every cumbersome regulation or implement new taxes, but it must develop a mechanism for regaining control over city finances.

If city government doesn't have the money to run itself, it has to make choices. If choices have to be made, a mechanism for understanding what the options are is necessary. Charter reform should educate and promote a structure for doing just that.

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