As the campaigns for and against a new Los Angeles City Charter make their final push before Tuesday's election, each has assumed an increasingly negative and accusatory tone.
Proponents say City Council members have leaned on city unions and lobbyists to oppose the document, while opponents say that Mayor Richard Riordan and his well-heeled friends are trying to buy the election.
"The only people who know their way around [the current charter] are the big-time lobbyists who represent downtown interests against our neighborhoods' needs," one pro-charter mailing states. "It's no surprise that these same lobbyists are campaigning hard to keep the 75-year-old charter just the way it is."
Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., the chairman of the anti-charter campaign, lobs back: "I see this charter as the rich man's charter. Just look at who's contributing to it."
There are facts in both sides' arguments, but opponents appear to have had a harder time selling their case.
Although it is true that the charter partisans have drawn their campaign money from wealthy executives and big companies, they also have built one of the broadest political bases of any local initiative since the police reform measure of 1992. Rare indeed is the ballot measure that goes to voters with the backing of the Chamber of Commerce and the NAACP, leading Jewish, Catholic and Protestant churches, civil rights leaders and downtown business executives, plus a sweep of major city news publications--the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Weekly, La Opinion and the Sentinel.
Still, the sniping by both sides has dominated much of the final days before Tuesday's election, when voters will consider whether to replace the city's 1925 charter with an overhaul drafted by two commissions, one elected, the other appointed largely by the City Council. As the campaign rhetoric has gone from placid to pitched, it has marginalized some of the election's real issues, the brass-tacks questions of what the proposed charter would and would not do.
It would, as critics note, add to the authority of the mayor. It would not, as some of those same critics suggest, radically reshuffle power at City Hall. It would, as supporters say, create a new vehicle for residents and others to participate in local affairs by establishing the city's first formal network of neighborhood councils. It would not, however, guarantee the success of those councils; only time, not the charter, can determine that outcome.
It would clarify the role and responsibility of the Police Commission's inspector general, but it would not necessarily make that office the powerful one that backers have long hoped for; the inspector general will have to make that happen.
Those uncertainties are typical and to some extent inevitable, given that the charter proposal touches virtually every aspect of city government but in most instances makes relatively modest changes, not sweeping or radical ones. That allows critics to complain that the document would change just about everything, and at the same time permits supporters to say that nothing would change that much.
Charter commission Chairmen Erwin Chemerinsky and George Kieffer have argued in forum after forum that the document they and their colleagues drafted would clean up much of the mess of the city's current phone book-sized charter. Useless, outdated and sometimes contradictory provisions would be dropped, replaced by a more streamlined working document.
One problem with all the cutting and trimming, however, is that it is difficult for voters to know precisely what would be dropped from the existing document. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, an ardent opponent of the charter proposal, argues that it would be better to defeat this document and instead offer up bite-size pieces for voters to consider in coming years.
Similarly, Svorinich argues that the leaner charter may be easier to handle but still is not an improvement. "Just because it's a smaller document doesn't make it a better document," he said.
As those arguments make clear, supporters of the proposed charter are countered mainly by council members, city unions and a few key lobbyists, who together have paid for virtually the entire campaign against the charter. Council President John Ferraro alone has chipped in at least $60,000, and his longtime friend and ally, lobbyist Neil Papiano, has contributed $10,000.
Those contributions make up more than a third of all the money that the anti-charter forces have reported. Add in the loans and donations by other council members and lobbyists, and it's clear that there would be no visible campaign against the charter were it not for that alliance.