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Riordan Plan Would Add to Mayor's Clout

City Hall: Charter reform proposal would grant authority to fire department heads, curb power of City Council.

October 15, 1997|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Richard Riordan on Tuesday unveiled charter reform proposals that would allow Los Angeles' traditionally weak mayors to govern as much more powerful chief executives.

They would have the authority to fire errant department heads, appoint their own city attorneys to handle civil matters and to control accounting.

Under Riordan's plan, the 15-member City Council, which dominates local government, would lose its ability to veto executive decisions made by the citizen commissions that oversee each of the city's departments. The council would concern itself chiefly with legislative matters.

In disclosing the plan, Riordan said his aim is to bring more centralized authority and accountability to what he sees as an outmoded, inefficient city government, modeled according to Progressive-era concerns that power should be as diffused as possible.

"The reason we need charter reform is simple," he said in a prepared statement. "The system is broken and we must fix it."

The mayor presented his suggestions to the leaders of two citizen commissions--one elected and one appointed--that are currently considering how to rewrite the city's 1925 charter.

The existence of the two commissions is a confusing reminder of just how diffuse power is in Los Angeles. Prodded by talk of secession in the San Fernando Valley, Riordan moved last year to launch the charter reform drive that he has long hoped would provide a lasting legacy of his administration. But he could not persuade the council to go along with a key component of his vision.

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He wanted a charter reform commission that would submit proposals for a streamlined government directly to the voters, who must approve any charter changes. But the council insisted on retaining its power to modify proposals before they reached voters.

Concluding that the council would never allow a popular vote on reforms that would reduce its own powers, Riordan stood by while the council appointed a commission that had to report to it. Then he privately raised $2 million to fund an initiative that created an elected commission whose proposals will go directly to voters.

Riordan was disappointed when a majority of candidates he supported were defeated by labor-backed candidates. But the multimillionaire venture capitalist mayor rebounded as a pragmatic politician, paying careful homage to labor's sacred cows.

Business groups, including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, have recommended that Civil Service rules be modified to provide greater rewards and punishments based on performance evaluations.

But Riordan recommended that the Civil Service system for city employees, and their retirement and pension benefits, be virtually left alone. He suggested only that certain provisions be moved from the bulky charter to administrative codes, and urged greater flexibility for city managers in filling a relative handful of non-Civil Service slots.

Leaders of the two commissions, hopeful that their recommendations will be on the April or June 1999 ballot, said they were receptive to considering the mayor's ideas.

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Lawyer and Democratic activist George Kieffer, who heads the appointed commission, spoke with caution, calling Riordan's proposals "an important contribution to the debate."

USC constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who heads the elected panel, said: "I think that they are very reasonable proposals. None were big surprises. Each of them is going to require very careful study."

But speaking as an individual, Chemerinsky took issue with one of the mayor's ideas. In the interests of a balance of power, the council should retain some form of veto over executive actions, he said.

Riordan's plan was also notable for the issues it skirted. Both commissions are struggling with the question of how to get an increasingly disconnected public more involved with city government.

Most discussions have centered on creating some form of neighborhood councils that could advise or decide on questions of very local concern. But Riordan offered no ideas on the subject, simply urging the commissions to consider ways to encourage neighborhood participation.

He also did not offer a position on the council's power to act as an appeal venue on zoning and land use matters--a power that encourages an impression that each council member is the mayor for his or her own district.

Nor did he offer detailed views on whether the City Council should be enlarged, whether school board members should again be elected at-large rather than in the current system of districts, whether the citizen commissions that oversee city departments should be advisory or decision-making, nor how the city's economic engines--its departments of Airports, Harbor and Water and Power--should be better organized. The Riordan administration has repeatedly tried to take money from these proprietary departments to fund general city services such as police protection, but has been rebuffed legally.

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Riordan concentrated on his theme that executive and legislative power should be more clearly defined. He went into his greatest detail in discussing ideas to split the duties of the now-elected city attorney, who functions as the city's prosecutor of misdemeanors and as lawyer for the city in civil matters.

The mayor's proposals to increase the power of his office are generally consistent with recommendations of eight Charter Commissions since 1934 that have studied city government but have been unable to win approval of their efforts, said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor serving as executive director of the appointed commission.

Riordan said Tuesday that he believes the time is finally ripe for voters to pass reforms.

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