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Appointed Charter Panel Offers Its Proposal

Government: Unlike elected counterpart, commission completes study without controversy. Hearing in Northridge scheduled.

September 16, 1998|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Los Angeles' elected charter commission navigates waters roiled by the criticism of a top city official and frequently seems conflicted by the complexity of the questions before it, its appointed counterpart has quietly completed a full slate of recommendations, which it begins presenting to the public today.

Long the quieter cousin in the charter reform debate, the appointed commission has been steadily and carefully building consensus around its more modest reform proposals. Where the elected commission is contemplating a bump in the City Council from 15 to 25 members, the appointed settled on 21. Where the elected commission is considering the creation of neighborhood councils whose hundreds, even thousands, of members would be elected by city residents, the appointed group is suggesting more circumscribed advisory councils overseen by a new city department.

And where the elected commission regularly attracts the most vehement response, the appointed commission meets in quiet sessions with barely the mildest public rebuke.

"We've been rather slow, deliberate, careful, risking on being boring at times," said George Kieffer, chairman of the appointed commission. But Kieffer added that "to the extent that we've avoided some of the more severe criticism" lobbed at the elected panel, it's largely because of the appointed group's style and approach.

The result: With less fanfare than its counterpart, the appointed commission has drafted 36 recommendations for charter reform that would substantially remake city government, altering its current system for involving the public in decision-making, for developing and publicizing a city budget, for picking and paying Los Angeles Unified School District board members and for letting the mayor hire and fire his top managers.

The appointed commission holds the first of its public meetings to solicit outside input on the charter proposals tonight, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Northridge Recreation Center, 18300 Lemarsh St. In advance of that session, Kieffer has been sharing the panel's recommendations with City Hall insiders, meeting Tuesday, for instance, with City Atty. James K. Hahn, who appointed Kieffer to the panel.

One key administrator, City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie, has lent his seal of approval to the appointed commission's document, though not without some reservation.

"I think they're doing fine," said Comrie, whose office reports to both mayor and council and helps prepare the budget and negotiate with city labor unions, among other things.

That expression of support is particularly notable in contrast to Comrie's much-publicized criticism of the elected commission. After months of quietly grumbling about the drift of charter reform, Comrie last week exploded in interviews and warned that he believes the elected commission's ideas, if adopted, would lead to a dangerous centralization of power in the mayor's office.

In part, Comrie's anger was directed at an aspect of the elected commission's work that would substantially reduce--or even eliminate--his office. Though that would not affect Comrie directly because he is slated to retire soon, he believes it would hurt the government as a whole.

The appointed commission also investigated dismantling the office, but decided against it.

"We concluded that [its] role . . . was critical to the government," Kieffer said.

But another point Comrie has objected to regarding the elected commission's proposals is true of the appointed group's as well--and could portend controversy.

Both commissions have recommended that the mayor be allowed to fire city department heads without City Council approval. The elected commission did that by a 12-0 vote; the appointed backs the idea too, but it is one of 20 or so notions that the group has agreed to revisit before setting down its final thoughts in a draft charter.

Supporters of the idea say it will strengthen the mayor's hand in managing city departments, making them more efficient and holding both supervisors and the mayor more directly accountable for performance. Opponents counter that general managers who are solely beholden to the mayor will work at his or her mercy and will be less responsive to residents who seek help through their City Council members.

And among the myriad issues that threaten to turn the charter reform debate into a full-fledged municipal government brawl, that one has its place.

This week, Julie Butcher, head of the local chapter of the Service Employees Union, warned that her members may be prepared to draw their line in the sand over what she sees as an attempt to weaken general managers by putting them under the mayor.

Referring to other organizations that have vowed to torpedo any proposed charter that includes provisions they dislike, Butcher on Monday night told the elected panel:

"The unions of this city have been very, very careful to not do what other groups have done, which is to threaten," she said. "If there is an issue, however, where we feel like that, this is it."

The appointed commission has six more public hearings scheduled and then hopes to submit a final draft to the council, which can put it on the ballot.

Meanwhile, the elected commission hopes to finish its work by the end of the year, as well. That commission, however, can put its proposed charter directly on the ballot in April or June 1999.

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