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THE STATE

Charter-Reform Movement Gets New Life, but Will It Last?

September 14, 1997|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, president of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, teaches at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research

Recent trends in the City Charter debate show why the movement to rewrite the city's constitution is an uphill battle. First, the sheer existence of two charter-reform commissions leads many observers to conclude that Los Angeles is out of control and that the city will never be able to redefine itself as a governable entity. Second, the constant hostility between Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council, to which the elected charter commission has most recently been held hostage, will ensure failure, because consensus is the one necessary and sufficient condition for reform to succeed. But--against all odds--there are news signs of cooperation.

In some ways, the loss of belief in ourselves is the most dramatic change. This is Los Angeles, after all, the "city of dreams." The current charter is the result of a city's commitment to growth and social justice. Today's reformers are not similarly motivated. Instead, unendurable frustration, fear that the city will splinter and loathing between the mayor and council drive the movement. This isn't a recipe for success.

Ever since the votes were counted and the elected commission turned out to be dominated by labor and council candidates, Riordan seemed to have lost interest in the commission he created and financed to reform the charter. The mayor promised only minimal monetary support: $300,000 in private funds, with donors desiring that their names be kept secret, a wish Riordan honored. But the city Ethics Commission and the council appropriately refused to accept such a blind trust.

Still, the council appeared determined to keep the elected commission penniless. In doing so, it risked alienating the elected commissioners, who, in their frustration, might have been more willing to call for a strong mayor, even stronger neighborhood councils and a significantly weakened council. That would have been a clear victory for Riordan, whose only apparent goal is more power to his office, less to the City Council.

For the moment, however, it appears an unusual spirit of compromise has settled upon all the players. The council is seriously considering giving the elected commission $350,000, the mayor says he will release the names of his donors and give the commission $100,000 immediately and--if necessary--come up with their total budget of $1.3 million.

The presidents of the two commissions, meanwhile, have agreed to cooperate. When possible, they will hold joint public hearings and joint deliberations on charter issues and public education. They will share research, polling information and the staff work already done by the council-appointed commission, which has been working for almost a year.

This unexpected progress, however, is no reason to gloss over the issue that threatened to put the elected commission out of business--secrecy. Indeed, it is a recurring problem, since L.A.'s businessman/mayor prefers to look to his friends in the private sector to solve problems rather than turn to city government. Blind trusts, which is what it came down to in the case of the elected commission, are typically associated with individuals who go into public service and need to avoid the appearance of making any decision based on self-interest. But a blind trust that gives money to government guarantees that the only side likely to remain blind is the public.

Yet, does that really matter when it comes to reforming something as abstract as the city's constitution? It is a structure of government, after all, not a contract. The charter may not name names, but it is quite specific about actions, requirements and the dispersal of authority. It says, for instance, that the allocation of pension fund investments should be reviewed every five years. There are companies that benefit from this requirement--those that do the reviews. If the charter commission proposed that the city controller, rather than a private company, perform the audit, the "benefit" would disappear. This isn't to say that the policy is flawed, or that it was written with specific auditing firms in mind. But it is an interest and it has been expressed.

Riordan's sudden change of mind about funding "his creation" eliminates, for the time being, the possibility of such conflicts. Yet, the larger problem remains: Can the city put aside today's politics in the name of more effective and responsive government in the future? If the voters don't support charter reform, the city may well tear itself apart, ending the dream of Los Angeles ever becoming the hub of anything like the Pacific Rim or the 21st century.

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