Despite what may be a historic low turnout, Los Angeles voters Tuesday strongly endorsed a sweeping effort to rewrite the city's arcane charter, returned most City Council members to office and apparently reelected City Atty. James K. Hahn, who beat back a bitter campaign to oust him.
As the ballots were being counted, the little suspense that remained involved an affluent swath of the Westside and San Fernando Valley where Cindy Miscikowski, longtime deputy to retiring Councilman Marvin Braude, was leading community activist Georgia Mercer for the only open seat on the City Council. With two other candidates in the crowded contest, a June runoff between the two appeared all but certain.
Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents a densely populated district from Pico-Union to Elysian Park, was turning back a surprisingly strong challenge from Rose Marie Lopez, a former aide to Councilman Art Snyder.
In the city attorney's race, Hahn appeared to win another four years in office, deflecting a blistering and costly challenge from rival Ted Stein.
"I think people just have confidence in the way things are going in Los Angeles," Hahn said as early returns showed him building a commanding lead.
Although refusing to concede defeat, Stein said, "Obviously the results that have come in so far are not encouraging. . . . It obviously doesn't look good."
The low voter turnout, which may earn the distinction of being one of the worst on record, capped a campaign that failed to generate much interest even in the mayor's race, in which incumbent Richard Riordan beat state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles).
For Riordan it looked like a night of twin victories--his own reelection and the passage of the charter reform measure that he championed, tempered only by Stein's apparent defeat in the city attorney's race.
Apart from capturing four more years, Riordan's chief accomplishment was Proposition 8, which asked voters to create an elected citizens panel to overhaul the city's 72-year-old charter. Its passage could have broad implications for the future of Los Angeles city government.
The 680-page charter outlines the roles and responsibilities of elected officials and acts as a byzantine blueprint for the decision-making process at City Hall.
The current division of power was established in 1923, when Los Angeles was a much smaller city. Since then, several citizen groups and individuals have attempted to overhaul the charter. But opposition from unions and past city councils helped defeat earlier reform efforts.
This time was different. Charter reform landed on the ballot spurred by a millionaire mayor and threats of a Valley secession last summer.
Most of the City Council fought back in vain against Proposition 8, accusing Riordan of using the effort in a bid to increase the power of his office.
The charter has been amended more than 400 times since it was enacted in 1925 and has grown to a complex, and critics say, incomprehensible document. Reform advocates say the charter creates a government that is inefficient, dysfunctional and out of touch with its citizens.
Riordan was instrumental in raising nearly $2 million to support the charter reform measure and a slate of candidates for the reform panel. More than two dozen of the donors to Riordan's reform effort gave from $25,000 to $50,000 each to three interlocking campaign committees run by Riordan or his close associates. In fact, 94% of all the money raised came from contributors of $10,000 or more.
The mayor contributed $575,000 to get the measure on the ballot and has promised to raise at least $300,000 from foundations to fund the work of the 15-member panel that will labor without pay for up to two years on a new charter.
"I think people who support Proposition 8 trust in Mayor Riordan, and that got the ball rolling," said Peter DeMarco, director of the charter campaign. "The simple fact is this is a victory for the people of Los Angeles."
Once elected, panel members will have the power to put before voters a new charter that could increase the mayor's authority, expand the size of the council and create neighborhood councils with the power to decide local planning and safety issues, among other ideas proposed by supporters.
The mayor's drive to put the measure on the ballot forced the City Council to create its own reform panel, a 21-member appointed commission that must submit its recommendations to the council before the proposals can go on the ballot. Riordan's elected panel would have the power to put the reform measures directly to the voters, without council approval.
City labor unions and City Council members attempted to offset Riordan's influence in the campaign by raising funds to support competing slates of candidates. But none came close to matching Riordan's funding-raising prowess.
The race for the 11th District council seat being vacated by Braude after 34 years also bore a Riordan imprint.