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CHARTER REFORM. Why It Matters

A Legacy for Riordan

November 22, 1998

Two years ago, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan wisely saw how the city's 1925 charter, weighted down with duplicative provisions, outdated procedures and mind-numbing detail, hamstrings the city's every act. He understood that if Los Angeles is to remain a world-leading city in the 21st century, it requires a new charter that untangles the knotted lines of authority at City Hall, grants citizens a meaningful voice in their government and responds to the diverse needs of this sprawling metropolis.

The mayor used his clout and personal funds to promote an initiative that led to an elected charter reform commission. The final reform proposals submitted by that panel and a commission appointed by the City Council are expected to be on the June 1999 ballot. The two bodies share a vital goal: a new, modern charter.

Riordan is convinced that the ability of a mayor to fire city department heads at will is so crucial that without it, he says, he cannot support charter reform. But in this issue as in everything else, the whole is more important than any single part.

Virtually everyone agrees that Los Angeles' 73-year-old charter outlived its usefulness long ago. At 700-plus pages, the charter buries even the simplest task--like replacing burned-out street lights--in layers of regulation and delay. Charter reform is badly needed to reconnect citizens to their government. The draft proposals from both reform commissions go a long way toward doing that, with many similar recommendations as well as some important differences.

But Riordan remains focused on one issue and one issue only. He insists that his successors--at most Riordan would serve one year under a new charter--have unfettered authority to fire general managers. Under the current charter, the City Council must concur before the mayor can fire a department head. Riordan says the mayor needs powers like those of a corporate chief executive, with more autonomy over city departments. This latitude, he believes, would make city departments more responsive by letting the mayor get rid of folks who weren't doing their jobs.

While both commissions would grant the office of the mayor new powers, the appointed panel has retained the council's check on the mayor's firing authority while the elected panel has decided to give Riordan what he wants.

Yet an elected mayor is not a corporate CEO; he answers to no board of directors. And with the city's two-term limit, voters have, in effect, only one chance to hold a mayor accountable for any of his or her decisions, including those on personnel. Moreover, not even CEOs can hire and fire simply on whim; federal and state laws require them to abide by procedures to ensure fairness.

There is a sensible compromise position that has supporters on both panels: granting the mayor the power to fire department heads subject only to a two-thirds veto by the council. Under this proposal, future mayors would get more of the flexibility that many, in addition to Riordan, feel that office needs. Yet city officials and the public would be protected against abuse. We think this proposal should win approval from both panels.

In looking at the obvious need for better representation, this newspaper has supported smaller council districts, which would result in more City Council members. If Los Angeles' council districts shrank from the current 250,000 people to a more manageable 100,000, that would mean a council of 35 people. But we recognize there's nothing magic about the number 35. The point is that council districts ought to be smaller and the people should have better representation. It's important that the larger principles of charter reform not get lost in the details.

That's why those who see the clear need for charter reform are deeply concerned that Riordan's concentration on the single issue of the mayor's ability to fire could well doom the entire reform enterprise. There is no broad support for that issue, and it would be easy for opponents to reduce the entire effort for charter reform to a simple-minded slogan along the lines of "no to the mayor's power grab."

The chairmen of both panels understand that voter approval for a new charter next June depends heavily on their ability to forge consensus on a single, coherent document. There is no surer way to doom the entire reform effort than to put before voters multiple, complex charter alternatives, or a single document that grants sweeping new authority to the mayor. Opinion polls have found that voters fear that such a proposal would politicize city government and intimidate department heads.

As the two panels resume meetings aimed at resolving their differences, Riordan can lob grenades from the sidelines and watch the entire reform effort wither away. Or, and this is our hope, he can play a statesmanlike, constructive role, take the momentum of what he started and turn it into the legacy he most wanted to leave Los Angeles: a smoother-running, more responsive government.

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