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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON LOS ANGELES

Recipe for a City That Works

A Charter For the 21st Century / One in a an occasional series.

March 29, 1998|MIKE FEUER

Government at its best is both visionary and responsive: Even as it charts a direction for the future, it deals in the present with constituents' most pressing demands. It also conducts business efficiently and with integrity. But the current organization of Los Angeles city government, established by our charter, doesn't adequately promote these qualities. In some cases, it hinders them.

Among the worst deficiencies of City Hall is its reactive approach to complex urban challenges. From substandard housing to gang violence, city initiatives often come after problems reach critical condition. A new City Charter for the 21st century should encourage leadership; it should radically change the ground rules of L.A. government by requiring for the first time that the mayor, the City Council, city officials and newly created neighborhood councils annually determine long-range as well as immediate priorities, then organize resources to achieve them. Each branch of government should be held accountable for meeting these goals.

Next, the charter should give the mayor unilateral power to fire department heads (while retaining the council's right to approve appointments), create neighborhood councils with authority over local services and land use matters and double the size of the City Council.

Consolidating the power to fire in the mayor's office--power that currently is divided between the mayor and the council--will increase efficiency and accountability. Devolving power over local services and land use to neighborhood councils will give communities control over their quality of life and give residents reason to participate in city governance. Increasing the size of the council will make its members more accessible and responsive.

The charter also should open vital budget deliberations, a process currently opaque and exclusionary, to all stakeholders. The mayor's budget should be the product of input not only from the City Council and department managers, but also from neighborhood councils.

In addition, the new charter should require weekly meetings between the mayor and City Council. Most residents would probably be surprised by the current lack of formal interaction between these two arms of government. Mandating regular contact might foster cooperation. It would certainly enhance accountability.

Accountability also means measuring up to high standards for success. To ensure that programs actually produce what taxpayers intend, an auditor general should be created in--or perhaps in place of--the controller's office, to conduct systematic performance and fiscal audits.

No matter how well government is organized, it cannot function without the public trust. The new charter should establish a code of conduct for City Council members. The council is more than an assemblage of individuals serving their constituents. It is one body that represents the city as a whole. A code of conduct is a contract with residents, an agreement that elected officials will adhere to high ethical standards or face real consequences. Such codes exist at the federal and state levels. The city should have one, too.

These changes at the center of government must be accompanied by improvements in land use decision-making and daily neighborhood service delivery. When government works at this level, residents believe in their city; when it doesn't, residents regard government itself as dysfunctional.

Neighborhood councils can improve daily governance if the charter empowers them to set local priorities. That means they should replace City Council offices as the point of intervention for services such as tree trimming and street repair--which may entail some paid staff--and they should have real influence over the citywide budgets that fund these services. It also suggests giving neighborhood councils a say in the annual performance review of department managers. For the first time, managers would be critiqued by their customers on whether departments really delivered.

Making government truly responsive also means giving neighborhood councils authority over land use decisions, subject to override by a supermajority of the City Council. However, some issues should be reviewed by multiple neighborhood councils or by the City Council, if a supermajority deems them of citywide significance.

Neighborhood councils should be small enough to represent communities with common interests, yet large enough to prevent confusion and balkanization. This suggests more than 100 neighborhood councils citywide. Working with the two neighborhood councils I have established in the 5th Council District--one in the Valley, one on the Westside--I have learned that a one-size-fits-all approach fails to account for the diversity of our city. Communities should therefore have some discretion about the size, composition and bylaws of their neighborhood councils.

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