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Great Leap Into Reform

The City Council majority, which twisted arms in an effort to defeat charter reform, must now make sure it is implemented.

June 10, 1999

Tuesday's vote for a new Los Angeles City Charter is a great achievement. By an unexpectedly wide margin, voters shelved the city's 74-year-old fossil of a charter and substituted one that promises a more responsive, efficient and accountable city government. Now begins the hard work to make that promise a reality.

Passage of Measure 1 is an unqualified and hard-fought victory for Mayor Richard Riordan, who initiated the current reform effort and spearheaded fund-raising for the campaign. He took his lumps in the process, sometimes from this editorial page. But he led as leaders must, setting an agenda and mobilizing behind it.

Credit just as properly belongs to the 36 men and women of the two charter reform commissions who, in more than 300 meetings over two years, crafted a document that will serve Los Angeles' future, not its past.

Though reform efforts in past decades failed, the commitment this time by charter drafters to an open process of deliberation, as well as their unusually broad coalition of supporters, left opponents isolated and without persuasive arguments. Tuesday's vote should be seen for what it is, a repudiation of the politics of self-interest, of the hysterical and hollow charges that opponents leveled against this charter and of the blatant arm-twisting by opponents on the City Council during the final weeks. With their vote, Angelenos signaled that they had had enough.

The real winners are residents in every corner of the city. Voters who received the slim new charter in the mail last month could immediately see its advantages over the phone-book-size set of rules that had directed--many would say hobbled--city operations since 1925. The new charter makes relatively modest but sensible changes. It strengthens the mayor's office, creates a citywide network of neighborhood councils to encourage resident participation, clarifies the role of the Police Commission's inspector general, requires regular audits of city finances and imposes a code of conduct on all elected officials.

The passage also marks a beginning. The new document will in part take effect immediately, but most of its provisions will become law on July 1, 2000. Between now and then, the mayor and the City Council, with the assistance of the city attorney, must review scores of existing ordinances and code provisions and draft new ones that conform to and implement the charter. That's a lot to ask in little more than a year. To make this happen, City Atty. James Hahn, who has consistently supported the new charter, should draw on legal experts from the two reform commissions, the men and women who drafted the revision and know it and the old document better than anyone else.

Members of the City Council, many of whom did almost everything they could to defeat the measure, must now make sure that its implementation is adequately funded. The two newly elected council members--Nick Pacheco, a former charter commission member, and Alex Padilla, a reform supporter--are expected to help.

Other reform tasks remain to be done. Voters defeated two measures that would have increased the size of the City Council. Little wonder that voters didn't want more council members, given the reputations of several in the current bunch. But that leaves council districts of nearly 250,000 residents, largest of any U.S. city, mocking the notion of representative government. Once the new charter settles in, perhaps voters can revisit this issue. Smaller districts would do more to connect residents to their city and to bring accountability to City Hall than almost any other change.

Amendment 2, which also passed Tuesday, opens up the process for drawing school board districts. That's a start, but a serious revision of the school district's structure and organization is overdue. So too is a review of the city's cumbersome Civil Service system, left largely untouched by charter drafters.

No charter alone, no matter how well drafted, can transform city government and make politicians accountable. But in passing Measure 1, city voters have taken a historic leap in that direction.

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