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The Stealth Proposition on City Ballots

Prop. HH: A proposed amendment that has had virtually no discussion could compromise charter reform.

October 25, 1998|XANDRA KAYDEN | Xandra Kayden, who teaches at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)

Despite the fact that Los Angeles has been in the throes of rewriting its City Charter for more than a year, there's a sleeper on the Nov. 3 ballot that could seriously affect efforts to change city governance. It has drawn almost no notice.

Proposition HH would permit the transfer of functions from the semiautonomous "proprietary" departments--Airports, Harbor, Water and Power, Pensions and the City Employees Retirement System--to other city departments. The mayor and City Council have tried for years to get control of three agencies--Water and Power, Airports and Harbor--that administer their budgets independent of the City Council. For just as long, the mayor and council have been stopped by the charter and by federal and state law. As it stands, those three departments account for more than half the budget and 80% of the city's debt, because of the massive programs of investment and restructuring they are undergoing.

Proposition HH would also allow the transfer of functions from other agencies to the proprietary departments. Street lighting, for instance, now requires a vote by property owners (and in many places it's not passing), but if the Department of Water and Power pays for it, our elected officials wouldn't have to ask for voter OK. City residents would eventually pay, of course, but they wouldn't be able to identify street lighting as a separate charge. Or the city could consolidate purchasing functions, which would give the proprietary agencies "functionality" but no control--and no revenue.

Proposition HH got on the ballot without debate, passing through the council's rules and elections committee, which waived consideration, and the whole council on a single day, without discussion. Proponents argue that the idea came from the Police Department and was just a plan to enable the LAPD to absorb airport and harbor police into their structure, just as they have swallowed up other formerly independent agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority police.

Of course, that also means--as Propositions FF and GG state--that the LAPD would need to provide the same generous benefits and pensions for current airport and harbor police. But HH doesn't exactly say that. And the reason that there were no official arguments submitted against HH is because of its stealth submission--none of the proprietary agencies was consulted, to say nothing of their constituents such as the airlines or shipping lines who are dependent on the security forces of these departments.

Maybe it would be a good idea to have one police agency in the city. Maybe not. But the charter amendment opens the door to something else entirely: the capacity to add or remove any function from these large departments, and, in consequence, nibble away at their budgets.

There is also the question of accountability: If the LAPD reports to the chief of police, who directs them in an airport emergency--someone from Parker Center downtown or someone on the scene at LAX or Ontario? If the control shifts, won't the budget for those services also follow? The Federal Aviation Administration requires that airports control all the funds used in their operations. Would the FAA accept LAPD oversight?

Recall the struggles that Los Angeles went through when the mayor and City Council took $31 million from the airport budget a few years ago to shore up the general fund, because the city didn't have the money both to increase the number of LAPD officers and to run the city during the recession. The Airport Commission spent an additional $5 million on Washington lawyers to keep those funds. In the end, the city returned the $31 million because Congress threatened to subtract the amount from the federal contribution to the MTA.

The Harbor Department, while a branch of the city, operates under state law. Along with the Airport Department (now renamed the Los Angeles World Airports) its operation is essential to regional, state and national interests. The Department of Water and Power could also be affected if Proposition HH passes, since it is in the midst of restructuring to prepare for deregulation of the electric power industry. If the city took over the management of DWP real estate, for instance, would the city take profits from real estate sales?

There were reasons why these proprietary agencies were protected in the charter by city fathers. Maybe the reasons are no longer applicable, but certainly there ought to have been a serious discussion with the departments, with the governmental and private agencies they serve and especially with both charter reform commissions, elected and appointed, which are trying to rethink the entire structure of city governance.

Even a discussion in the City Council would have helped.

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