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Charter: Year of Progress


April 26, 1998

It was just a year ago that Los Angeles voters were first asked to imagine a more efficient, responsive city government. Last April, they approved a measure to convene an elected charter reform panel and they selected its members. A panel appointed by the City Council was already at work.

Many predicted that true reform of a city encrusted by 70 years of bureaucracy and petty politics would never happen. Skeptics said one reform panel would have a hard enough time capturing and holding the public's attention on such a dry topic; two panels surely would fail.

What a difference a year has made.

After months of public hearings, the elected and appointed reform panels are now making tentative decisions about what should be included in or dropped from the city charter. The two groups have forged a thoughtful collaborative process, their goal being to put one set of joint recommendations before the voters for approval next year, rather than confusing them with two.

The bigger audiences at commission meetings are but one measure of the progress. Still, concern that the public will dismiss charter reform as a pointless, academic exercise always looms.

Last week the meeting room at USC was full when the appointed panel weighed options to improve citizen participation in city government. The panel tentatively endorsed the creation of neighborhood councils with advisory power and recommended increasing the City Council to 21 members from 15. The six-hour deliberation was one in a series of sessions that should end by June. Then the panels will submit the full slate of draft proposals for public comment beginning in the summer. This long, laborious process is evidence that there are no easy answers--and there is no one set of answers--to what ails this city.

Consensus within each commission and between the two panels has at times been hard-won. The process of actually drafting the language of a new charter could be harder still. The two panels are now talking about how to do this--should they jointly write one version or merge two separate ones? We fear they will lose the fragile public goodwill and interest they have generated unless they work together on one clear and concise draft. But both groups have already begun to put some of their recommendations into dense charter-ese. And there is one proposal that needs to be killed outright.

That is the "bill of rights and responsibilities" adopted last month by a committee of the elected reform panel. It represents a false direction. The elected panel's Committee on Improving the Quality of Life in Los Angeles went astray in proposing to commit the city on issues of "reproductive autonomy," a "living wage" and religious freedom, among others. Some of these proposals, which go before the full commission next month, duplicate federal and state rights, and matters like abortion rights have no place in a city charter. On the other hand, a statement of citizen rights under the new charter and of the city's responsibilities to its residents is a reasonable idea.

From the outset, charter reformers have worked hard to engage voters in this dry-as-dust process. Now they'll also have to improve their political smarts to ensure that their yeoman efforts aren't dismissed as impractical.

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