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Memo to Charter Reformers: All Politics Is Local

Many who oppose surrendering power to communities enjoy the same kind of small-scale access they would deny Angelenos.

October 11, 1998|TOM HAYDEN | Democratic State Sen. Tom Hayden represents portions of the San Fernando Valley and Westside. He was a candidate for mayor in 1997

Most residents of Los Angeles identify themselves by their communities: Northridge, Brentwood, Boyle Heights, Studio City, Watts, Westwood. They may tell their relatives in New York, Mexico or Israel that they live in "L.A.," but in everyday life we are known by our neighborhood.

It's a natural fact of human history to identify with a community of one's own. So why should all the quality-of-life issues that impact neighborhoods be made and controlled downtown?

In the impersonal urban vastness, everyone needs a sense of place and a say-so in the decisions that affect our well-being. Otherwise we become uprooted and afloat in a sea of consumers and commuters, thousands of Dilberts in identical interchangeable office modules.

This is the most critical issue that meaningful charter reform must address. That's why so many people support the idea of giving community or neighborhood councils a real voice in zoning or service decisions.

The great paradox of the charter reform debate thus far is that the most visible group opposing the surrender of power to communities is made up of a a group of of corporate CEOs many of whom live outside of Los Angeles. Members of the Los Angeles Business Advisors live in upscale communities such as Beverly Hills, San Marino and Pasadena. They have access to small-scale school boards and city councils yet they have vowed to defeat any charter reform that would grant Angelenos the same.

The list even includes some charter reform bureaucrats. I once had a conversation with a chief consultant to charter reform who disparaged the empowerment of neighborhood enclaves as "secessionist." The inner city will be left behind, he argued fervently. By the way, I asked as our conversation ended, where are you living these days? Santa Monica, he replied sheepishly, "because we've got kids in school."

Los Angeles already has an invisible secessionist process under way, composed of remote-control decision making downtown by those who live out of town. These people commute from the suburbs to their downtown office buildings without ever knowing what it's like to live in neighborhoods powerless under a remote bureaucracy. The remote-control elite sees Los Angeles primarily as an economic checkerboard rather than a society of neighborhoods.

For example, the mayor's "development reform" team in 1996 proposed that any homeowners wishing to formally oppose zoning decisions impacting their neighborhoods should pay an upfront fee of $5,000. Only after a citywide outcry of homeowners did the City Council shelve the proposal.


Or take the ongoing issue of noise pollution and safety at Van Nuys Airport (more cynically known as "Van Noise"). The mayor and the city's business boosters frankly say that more noisy jet planes must land at the airport for the convenience of an out-of-town corporate jet set. City officials vehemently opposed meaningful noise controls for the thousands of Valley residents living under the flight path. One airport official proposed that the neighbors should simply keep their doors and windows shut.

The city establishment's official 1997 growth plan would have placed neighborhoods under further siege until it was blocked this year in court. The plan's premise was to accommodate development for 1 million more residents without any of the traffic and pollution mitigation required by state law.

Opponents of neighborhood councils naturally want to defend their present power and, if possible, increase it through a centralized executive. They threaten to destroy charter reform if neighborhood councils are empowered. Unable to defend their insider privileges openly, they pursue several lines of attack, claiming that too much neighborhood participation will paralyze the official order, deter private investment and further divide the city.

The same arguments were used to prop up the divine right of kings, male suffrage, white supremacy and every elitist doctrine ever threatened by the specter of participatory democracy.

City government in Los Angeles is already dysfunctional because of the rotting weight of an over-centralized system. Residents prefer not to be patronized by bureaucrats and commissions inviting them to drive downtown and offer their thoughts for a minute or two at a sham hearing.

The city is already fractured along more racial and ethnic lines than any city in America with too many inner-city communities feeling completely underrepresented in decision making. As long ago as 1968, after the Watts riots, a charter reform commission found that the single unifying grievance beyond all race lines in Los Angeles was the lack of citizen and neighborhood empowerment. Their recommendation for neighborhood ombudspersons was trashed by smug officials downtown.


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