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Whatever Happened to All Those Previous Charter Changes?

July 05, 1998|Marc B. Haefele | Marc B. Haefele is a staff writer and columnist for the LA Weekly

The debates about whether to revise the roles of the controller and city attorney keep sputtering. There's still disagreement on the best form of neighborhood representation. There's the problem that some negotiations aimed at reaching major public decisions are being held in secret. But charter reform finally has gained momentum and, for the first time since it all began last year, the players are looking over their shoulders at the do-or-die deadline of March 5, 1999, which is the last date any charter proposals can go on the mandated June '99 ballot.

Then what? Well, get ready to wait. Assuming the voters pass some form of reform, and depending on what it is, it could take at least twice as much time to put the new charter into effect as it did to get it before the city's voters.

Let's suppose the voters approve some passingly radical changes. Let's suppose the changes include proposals now under discussion by the two charter reform commissions: adding eight council members, diminishing the city attorney's authority, giving elected neighborhood councils power to veto development. Even if voters approved such a mandate overwhelmingly, it might take years before the subject of the proposed changes, the city government, actually implemented them.

To begin with, the city's 15 elected legislators have to create the ordinances that authorize most changes to the charter. They have had to do this for many charter amendments approved by the voters in the past. This hasn't always happened quickly. The various city institutions, both the bureaucracies themselves and the unions that represent employees, or are otherwise affected, will also have their say in how the voter-decreed changes are implemented.

One harbinger of how the process might be prolonged is the purchasing-reform charter amendment the voters approved in April, 1995. Its passage followed many months of well-publicized campaigning by City Councilman Joel Wachs, who declared that the city was wasting up to $50 million a year on archaic bidding and bulk-purchasing requirements, not to mention arcane warehousing and supply protocols.

While not exactly a burning populist issue, Wachs' measure responded to Mayor Richard Riordan's prevailing critiques of bureaucratic inefficiencies. So it was an easy winner at the polls.

That was the last time most of us ever heard of city purchasing reform. L.A.'s procurement since has continued on its ancient, bumbling way. Earlier this month, Wachs took steps to bring the proposed ordinances needed to support the voter-authorized reform plan before the council. Meanwhile, city staffers have been wrestling with bureaucracy and union representatives to make the procurement reforms--now called PRIMA 2000--acceptable to all parties. One city staffer says he believes the reforms could, in theory, be put in place this summer, nearly three and a half years after approval at the polls--if final agreement can be reached with the unions and department heads.

The slow-up on the Wachs amendment wasn't conscientious. Council members won't suffer if the city pays less for paper and pencils. All that stands in the way of these reforms is common inertia: It has taken months of meetings and miles of memos to answer objections and to define the voters' purchasing mandate in terms of the city's administrative code. There were, meantime, many more newsworthy things for the council members and mayor to do than to expedite the procurement renaissance.

If a simple purchasing-reform charter amendment takes Los Angeles nearly four years to turn into reality, how long would it take to implement many voter-approved pages of revolutionary charter changes?

The answer for the thornier possible charter items is that their legalization could be complete five years from now, if all goes well in the meantime.

City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said that some major changes--for instance, new contracting authority for the mayor--could happen as soon as the 1999 election results are certified. But to put an enlarged City Council in place could take two more elections--2001's and 2003's--when all but one of the current council members will have left office under term limits.

Appointed neighborhood councils, if that's the local-government alternative the voters choose, could be working by 2003. But the elected commission wants the new charter to offer the voters elected local councils with some decision-making power. No such government institution exists in any city in the United States, so there is no model to follow. If the voters approved it, the legal formulations and subsequent challenges might take a decade to sort out.

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