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A Remake That Won't Repeat the Success of Its Original

November 29, 1998|Steven P. Erie and Kevin F. McCarthy | Steven P. Erie, a political scientist at UC San Diego, and Kevin F. McCarthy, a Rand senior social scientist, are coauthors of "Meeting the Challenge of Charter Reform," a Rand study for the Los Angeles Business Adivsors

Just as Hollywood producers are remaking successful classics like "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Psycho," so have L.A. charter reformers discovered value in past scripts. The appointed charter commission's Nov. 16 proposal, offered for public review and comment, bears striking resemblance to the 1925 draft charter, the last successful major rewrite of the city's governing document. Like the 1925 proposal, today's recommendations aim at incremental rather than comprehensive reform. Both try to streamline old charters bloated with ad hoc amendments. Both tinker with the balance of power between the mayor and City Council. Both modestly strengthen local representation but resist a major restructuring of decision-making.

But if the appointed commissions' recommendations, which require council approval, were to go before voters in their current form, they would have little chance of securing the overwhelming voter support--87%--that the 1925 charter overhaul received. Dramatic changes in the city's political structure and culture since the 1920s make successful charter reform far more difficult to accomplish today. Thus, charter reformers would do well to learn the lessons of Hollywood: Most remakes fail unless they are recast to capture changes in audience and Zeitgeist. The commission's modest recommendations appear to fail on both counts.

It is not surprising that the appointed commission has opted for a remake, since the origins of the 1920s charter effort have an eerily contemporary ring. A major complaint then, as now, was charter bloat and incoherence. Successive amendments to the 1889 charter had resulted in confused lines of authority among the mayor, City Council, boards and departments. Then-Mayor George Cryer, like Mayor Richard Riordan, decried his limited formal powers vis-a-vis the council. The Valley, which only agreed to join the city to secure water, quickly complained of inadequate representation at City Hall and threatened to secede. Business leaders feared the cumbersome old charter would hamstring growth.

These familiar concerns in the 1920s led to a proposal seemingly resembling today's recommendations. The old 1889 charter, laden with 100 amendments, underwent liposuction. The result was a streamlined 96-page document with clearer lines of authority. (The 337-page rewrite that the appointed charter commission released is a slimmed-down version of a 700-page document larded with 400-plus amendments.) Like today, the earlier framers modestly strengthened the mayor's powers over appointments and budget preparation, while confining the City Council to a more strictly legislative role. Similarly, the 1925 charter reinforced the role of appointed commissions in managing departmental affairs, particularly for the proprietary departments.

While today's reformers seek to increase local representation, and blunt Valley secession, with an enlarged 21-member City Council, neighborhood advisory councils and area-planning commissions, their predecessors used other mechanisms. To placate disgruntled residents of the Valley and San Pedro/Wilmington, the 1925 charter writers dangled two carrots: district elections, instead of the at-large electoral system, and a mechanism for creating borough governments, which never was invoked and eventually was removed from the charter.

The appointed commission also appears to have learned the lessons of past charter failures. In both 1970 and 1971, a new charter appeared on the ballot that weakened the independence of the proprietary departments: water and power, harbor and airports. Led by the DWP, these agencies actively campaigned against the proposal, narrowly defeating it both times. Not surprisingly, today's recommendations safeguard the departments' remaining independence.

Yet, despite its caution and compromise, the new proposal won't attract the kind of support the 1925 charter overhaul did because Los Angeles has been transformed: from an ethnically homogeneous, emerging metropolis confidently led by a progressive, growth-oriented elite into a mature multiethnic enclave whose diverse leadership appears more preoccupied with protecting newly won prerogatives than with satisfying residents' needs.

The city's population today is six times larger than in 1925. Moreover, Latinos are replacing Anglos as the majority population. The political influence of a fragmented and less locally oriented business elite has eroded. A once-powerful pro-growth coalition has been challenged by environmental and neighborhood groups skeptical of development. A once-participatory civic culture--59% turnout for the 1925 charter election--has disintegrated. With low-turnout elections the norm, small oppositional groups can exert disproportionate leverage.

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