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Charter Reform Can't Do It All

Los Angeles: It can't solve economic disparity or ethnic differences.

September 07, 1997|WARREN OLNEY | Warren Olney hosts the "Which Way L.A." program on KCRW-FM. Pullquote:

Charter reform is being advertised by reasonable people as the last best hope for holding Los Angeles together into the 21st Century.

"This may be a historic moment," says Erwin Chemerinsky, the USC law professor who now chairs the city's elected charter reform commission. But Chemerinsky and other reformers have a very short time to revise and reassert the authority of the legal system in America's most complex and divided city.

Given that and the dissension that already has beset the reform movement, avoiding Balkanization of Los Angeles may be a more challenging task than it is up to.

Los Angeles now has two charter reform commissions, both born under a cloud composed of massive public disinterest in civic affairs, the threat of San Fernando Valley secession and the notion that some kind of neighborhood councils might persuade apathetic citizens that their voices could be heard.

But both commissions were born prematurely, because there was no consensus on just what it was that charter reform was supposed to address.

Mayor Richard Riordan created the elected commission to cope with his frustration with the City Council, which he says has so much executive power that he can't get anything done. In defense, the council appointed its own commission, reserving for itself the power to approve any proposals before they go on the ballot. "Riordan's" commission can put its recommendations to the voters directly. But it's not "his" any more, because most of his candidates lost.

So both commissions now occupy a kind of limbo: They are solutions in search of problems.

The council has asserted itself by funding and staffing its appointed commission, which is assembling information and holding hearings. At the same time, the council has prevented the elected commission from receiving any money at all.

Of the private funding promised by Riordan during the recent election, not even a down payment can be accepted, says a council committee, because its sources have not been fully disclosed. That same committee offered a token amount of public money, but on conditions Chemerinsky says are too limiting to him and his colleagues. Consequently, when he was chosen chair this week, there was no secretary to type the announcement and no fax to send it.

So charter reform rests for now in the suffocating embrace of the body that wants it least, the council. Although four or so of its members endorse some form of change, most see charter reform as a power grab by the mayor.

Riordan himself, despite continuing rage at the council, is backing away. "He has no strongly held views," says Robin Kramer, his chief of staff, except that the council can thwart his efforts without being called to account. "When he has some [strongly held views], he'll tell both commissions."

The commissions have only until the election of June 1999 to decide what problems need to be solved, make recommendations and generate enough public support to pass the new charter or two that Chemerinsky hopes will prevent Balkanization. That's a staggering task, but the existing charter--vast, complex and contradictory as it may be--is rich in material with the potential for getting attention.

The L.A. Unified School District's elected board, for example, is a creation of the charter. That means charter reform could redraw the boundaries of board members' districts, cause some to run at large and change the dates of elections.

David Fleming, one of the mayor's closest friends and advisors, told me that "once a commission gets into that, public support for charter reform goes up to 80%," suggesting that school reform via charter reform might help blunt the Valley secession movement.

To be sure, unhappiness with public education is an issue that cuts across demographic, economic and political lines, but its potential for divisiveness is at least as great as the likelihood that it would unite a population as diverse as L.A.'s.

On the other hand, there is so much competition for services such as public safety, building permits and garbage collection that the struggle over priorities is what's real to most potential voters; charter reform may seem like a lofty, irrelevant abstraction.

Finally, charter reform's unifying value is threatened by problems outside its purview: economic disparity, the crisis in affordable housing, the consequences of welfare reform, homelessness and, of course, racial and ethnic difference.

The ideal of charter reform is unquestionably a noble one, invoking images of the founding fathers sweating to give birth to the nation. But it will be tragic if the stalemate over charter reform distracts the attention of city leaders and allows these seeds of division to sprout and grow beyond the power of any law to control.

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