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Charter Reform. Why It Matters.

Charter: a Perilous Drift

October 11, 1998

The two panels attempting to reform the Los Angeles City Charter are drifting further apart. With time for a solution growing short they must reverse directions if they are to have a prayer of writing a single, streamlined city charter and putting it before voters next year. The obstacles are many, starting with some members of each commission being wedded to their way and their way only.

That there are two panels instead of one drafting a new city charter results from the long-running animosity between Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council. Riordan, unhappy with what he considers unnecessary limits on his authority, funded the campaign that gave rise to the elected commission last year. The City Council, fearing a diminution of its expansive powers, had earlier appointed its own reform panel in a ham-handed--and unsuccessful--effort to block meaningful change in the city's charter, a voluminous document that dates to 1925.

If Los Angeles residents care at all about the rules under which the city operates, they care mostly about being heard better at City Hall, securing faster services from city departments and knowing whom to complain to when necessary.

As the two commissions move apart in their recommendations, they risk losing the one constituency they must win--the voters, who might be angered by extreme proposals or confused by duplication and the fight between Riordan and the council.

One recent example of the growing division between the elected and appointed panels: Previously, they had agreed that the mayor should have sole authority to dismiss department managers. The current charter requires the mayor to get agreement from a majority of the council first. On Wednesday, and after considerable discussion and thought, the appointed commission retreated to that position.

On the hot-button issue of neighborhood councils, the elected commission wants the charter to mandate elected neighborhood councils that hold decision-making authority. The appointed panel would provide for an Office of Neighborhood Empowerment but leave to the City Council decisions about how these community councils would be selected and the scope of their powers. In our view, this is the wiser approach.

The elected commission still wants the new charter to include a bill of rights; the appointed panel considers such an addition to be unnecessary at best, divisive at worst. The two groups are also at odds over the size of the City Council.

The process that kept the panels in touch has faltered. A small group of members from each began to meet many months ago, seeking to expand areas of agreement and whittle away disagreements. But that conference committee hasn't convened for several weeks now. Summer vacations, travel schedules and other commitments explain some of the canceled meetings. A new wariness, perhaps competitiveness, between both groups may explain others.

The process of collaboration and compromise must get back on track. Commissioners who might entertain thoughts of putting separate charter proposals before voters next year would surely doom both, to the delight of champions of the status quo.

There is no one right answer on charter reform, no one set of proposals that will produce a more flexible, responsive and accountable city government. Instead, the new charter has to reflect the governing culture of Los Angeles--a tradition that includes some degree of shared power between the mayor and council. That charter also has to give every constituency--homeowners, public employees, the mayor's office, the council and others--something they can live with, and the entire city something better than it has now.

The appointed panel must wrap up its work by early December in order to meet statutory deadlines for the June ballot, even earlier if it wants to try for an April vote. The elected commission can keep at it into next year, largely because the City Council does not have the authority to review or alter its work, as it can the appointed panel's charter proposal.

That's not much time for the two groups to bring their acts together. The city will not be served if these panels don't come back to one table, regularly and soon.

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