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Focus on Reform, Not Personalities

Los Angeles: Rewrite the charter for the 21st century, not for this mayor or this council.

September 17, 1998|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky is chairman of the Elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission and a professor of law and political science at USC

The ultimate goal of charter reform is to create a Los Angeles city government that is more accountable, more efficient in delivering services and more responsive to its residents. Crucial to achieving these goals is clarifying responsibilities within city government and in some areas, strengthening the authority of the mayor

Keith Comrie, the city's chief administrative officer, opposes some of these reforms and has made sharp personal attacks directed at the elected charter commission's staff, Mayor Riordan and the mayor's top aides. Unfortunately, some on the mayor's staff have responded in kind with insults directed at Comrie. The personal attacks must stop.

As the battle over charter reform heats up, it is essential that it be a debate about the issues and not about personalities. Charter reform is not about this mayor or this City Council or this chief administrative officer; it is about how to design the best government for Los Angeles.

Every study of Los Angeles city government has concluded that in some areas the powers of the mayor must he strengthened. For example, someone ultimately must be in charge of executive departments. The elected charter commission has concluded that, generally, the mayor should be that person. He should be given the ultimate responsibility for managerial decisions and held accountable for their success or failure. Thus, the commission has decided that the mayor should appoint general managers for departments with the City Council's consent, but have the unilateral authority to fire general managers.

Both the elected and the appointed charter reform commissions have come to this conclusion and the last vote on the subject within the elected commission was unanimous. If a department is not performing well, the mayor must have the ability to replace the person at the top and institute, with the council's consent, new management.

The elected commission also has decided that the budget process should be streamlined to make it more efficient and more accountable. There are three key aspects: accurately projecting revenue, proposing how it should be spent and approving budget decisions. The commission has concluded that an independent, elected city controller should provide revenue projections. The mayor should have responsibility for preparing the budget. This is one of the most important responsibilities assigned to the mayor and is vested in that office in virtually every city in the country. Finally, the City Council should have the authority for approving or rejecting the budget.

Currently, there is a chief administrative officer with significant authority in the budget process, who reports to both the mayor and the City Council. After hearings and much debate, the elected commission decided not to continue this because of the problems created when one official must answer to two masters.

The commission also believes that the powers of the City Council should be increased in some areas, especially to ensure needed checks and balances. For instance, the commission has decided to give the council greater authority to manage its own affairs and to institute a legislative veto where the council can overturn decisions made by city commissions.

These are among the literally hundreds of changes that the elected commission will propose in the new charter that it will place before the voters in April or June.

The elected commission will continue its deliberations and seeking reactions to its proposals. We welcome the comments of all, including those with experience in city government. We anticipate a heated debate and hope that people throughout the city will participate in this process. But the ugly personal insults and attacks must end. The focus in the charter reform debate must be entirely over the substantive issues of how to best design new government. The future of Los Angeles demands no less.

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