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The City's Bureaucracy Fights Back

Charter reform: Keith Comrie's objections reveal a nervous old guard, but its concerns must be addressed, too.

September 18, 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, 1990)

When the city's chief administrative officer, Keith Comrie, spoke out against the elected charter reform commission and Mayor Richard Riordan's weak leadership, it marked a watershed in the yearlong charter reform process.

Comrie, a respected senior civil servant, has essentially said that the emperor has no clothes--the "emperor" in this case meaning both the mayor and the elected charter reform commission. While enthusiasm for reform has never been high among the established bureaucrats who actually run city government, they have kept a low profile, sometimes testifying before the two charter commissions but mostly waiting to see what would happen. Until now, the loudest voices have been the usual suspects: business, labor and homeowner associations. Comrie's comments suggest that this old guard is getting nervous and intends to fight back.

Some anxiety in the city establishment was to be expected. The commissions, are, after all, reviewing bureaucrats' performance and considering how to change the way the city does business. While some on the inside are strongly resistant, Comrie has not been among the hidebound. He supported charter reform. He thinks a great deal about how the city runs, about how the Riordan administration has been unable--often unwilling--to develop the political skills to work with either the council or the civil service.

The old guard has been frustrated by the Riordan administration's unwillingness to work with them from the beginning. Comrie is right in noting that Riordan could have been a more effective mayor if he had been willing to work with the city government, rather than trying to change it. Political influence is always stronger than actual authority. A mayor--even in a strong-mayor governmental structure like New York's--can't accomplish much without political skill. Consider the difference between David Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani. The latter has been a major player in bringing down the crime rate, cleaning up Times Square, trying to change the very atmosphere of the city by forcing cabbies to be more polite. Dinkins, his predecessor, was mired in inaction and rising racial tensions.

Another concern is that the elected charter reform commission, in particular, is overly influenced by New York's example. The anti-New York attitude reflects a traditional California progressive bias against any official accruing enough power to be corrupt. In L.A.'s case, it is the anti-urbanism of a suburban city. Before the charter reform process ends, there ought to be more thought about what sort of city Los Angeles wants to be.

One argument for charter reform is that no one in Los Angeles government has enough authority to make decisions and get things done, a major source of frustration. The challenge posed by Comrie is that the diffused authority--and the strength of the Civil Service, which promotes an internal culture of loyalty--is the reason that Los Angeles is relatively free of corruption. But does a lack of corruption stem from the city's charter or from the city's culture? Los Angeles has the most comprehensive ethics code in the nation. There is a press to spotlight malfeasance and a City Council to serve as an oversight body, even if it lost its role in day-to-day administration. Do we honestly believe that the only way to balance powers is to sustain the weakest mayor structure in a major American city today?

It can hardly be argued that this structure prevented corruption because the worst case occurred under this same charter in 1938 when Mayor Frank Shaw was recalled. True, Fletcher Bowron succeeded Shaw and brought about more reforms--including the office of the chief administrator that Comrie holds--but all sides would be hard-pressed to argue that structure made the absolute difference.

The increased power for the mayor that every major charter reform has proposed since 1925 is not a wild, untested theory; it operates at the state level in California. While we may disagree with any given governor, California's government is no more overrun with corruption than is Los Angeles'.

But Comrie's concerns need to be taken seriously, whether or not one agrees with his position on the dangers of corruption. Los Angeles needs a balance of power, no matter what its form of government--and there is no ideal form. There is only that to which reasonable people can agree. Charter reform will fail if it comes down to a battle in which one side must score a victory over the other. All the previous reform efforts have taught us that.

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