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The Virtue of Simplicity

CHARTER REFORM: Why It Matters

July 19, 1998

The charter reform movement is in danger of losing its way. In principle, both commissions looking at streamlining the charter of the city of Los Angeles agree that the 1925 document needs to be much clearer and shorn of the minute detail that traps city officials in red tape. Yet in practice, the reform panels too often have trouble moving beyond the status quo in their decisions on narrow issues. In choosing among those details, the commissions risk losing sight of the big picture of why anyone would want charter reform: more responsive, user-friendly government.

This is hard work, to be sure, and the two commissions--one elected by the voters and one appointed by the City Council--have made big strides in the more than a year that they've struggled with drafting a new structure for city government. What began as a contentious, intensely political process is jelling into something far more earnest and deliberative. The two groups regularly share ideas and try to work in tandem. There are now wide areas of agreement on important issues. The bad news is that the two commissions (and yes, there's no need for two--that's a result of a game of one-upmanship between the mayor and the council) are raising excessive caution to a virtue. Their current round of public hearings, soon to wrap up, is not doing a good job of keeping discussion focused on what's most important.

To succeed, both panels must remind themselves that the engine for reform is the frustration of ordinary citizens. What Los Angeles wants and needs out of this process is clarity and accountability. Residents also want a flexible city structure, one that can adapt to new needs and eliminate outdated services. That requires a trim charter, not the 700-page monster we have now. A new charter must lay out broad principles of government and leave most of the detail to city ordinances and codes that can be changed more easily.

Recent decisions by both panels underscore the difficulty of their task. Earlier this month, the appointed panel tentatively voted to retain the Board of Public Works as specified in the current charter--as a full-time board managing sewers, trash collection, street maintenance and lighting. The decision went against the commission's wise staff recommendation to make the board a part-time advisory body, shifting management authority to general managers within the department.

Current board members, a city employees' representative and others testified that the existing structure, whose members represent specific geographic districts, would give residents better service. Yet that structure is duplicative and confusing: Does a resident with a broken street light call his representative on the Board of Public Works? His council member? The street lighting division? Or all of the above? This is the nitty-gritty of government service. Presently it seems that everyone is in charge and no one is in charge. That's a great way of ensuring that everyone can take credit for a job well done but no one can be found to take responsibility for a job poorly done.

This sort of situation would be even worse if the charter mandates elected neighborhood councils, which the elected panel has embraced. And the proposal to add a bill of rights, rejected earlier this month by the elected panel but which could come back for another vote, would further encumber the charter, possibly to the point of injecting issues like abortion rights into Los Angeles' traditionally nonpartisan governance. That's just nonsense.

Both panels are trying to conclude this round of public deliberations and begin concentrating on drafting a new charter for the ballot next June. As they do, we would remind commissioners that if they truly want a charter that provides a framework for better government, they should take a cue from the U.S. Constitution and keep it concise and profoundly simple.

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