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CHARTER REFORM: Why It Matters

You Be the Judge

May 02, 1999

If you are a registered voter in the city of Los Angeles, look for a copy of the proposed city charter in your mailbox soon. On June 8 you will be asked to decide whether this charter should replace the city's 75-year-old set of governing rules. There's an overwhelming case for voting yes on the new charter--Measure 1 on the ballot.

Too bad the city clerk won't be sending a copy of the current charter too. Of course, the cost of mailing that five-pound behemoth would run into the millions of dollars. But to anyone who compares the two, the choice is obvious. It's a choice between clarity and confusion, accountability and drift, meaningful representation and more of the same at City Hall.

The proposed new charter is not a perfect document. It's a compromise two years in the making. But it represents real progress toward a more responsive, efficient government.

Over the next few weeks, you will hear a different story from the professional naysayers and the folks who want the charter to fail so San Fernando Valley secession can succeed and the City Hall politicians who have learned to work the status quo to their advantage. Don't take their word for it, or ours for that matter. Read the proposed charter.

The first big surprise is that, to a great extent, the proposed charter is written in plain English. It's compact, by charter standards anyway. Left out are many of the rules that have become outdated, that hamper more than help the city serve its residents, that have turned what should be a flexible framework for government into a rigid operations manual.

What's been added is what makes this charter so much better. Over the coming weeks, The Times will explore how this document would better serve Los Angeles residents. The advantages are considerable.

Take city services. The current charter lays down unbending rules governing how the city must buy everything from automobiles to paper clips. Only a vote of the people can change these requirements about the domestic content of purchased products, the use of blanket purchasing orders and electronic orders. Originally drafted to prevent fraud, the provisions for the most part now just make it harder, slower and much more expensive for the city to operate. City purchasing agents often can't move quickly enough to take advantage of a good deal, and the taxpayer ends up the loser.

The new charter sensibly replaces all this verbiage with one sentence: "The city shall prescribe by ordinance the process for purchases of materials and supplies, equipment and equipment rental, repair and maintenance, consistent with the requirements of the charter." In other words, the City Council can decide how the city should go about buying what it needs and, just as important, it can change those rules when they become outdated or prove inefficient. This is no power grab, as some have charged; this is modern, efficient management.

Accountability is another reason the new charter will mean better city services for all. Progressive-era drafters of the city's current charter feared corruption and unchecked power above all, so they put into place a set of rules that spread authority across many city departments and officers. As a result, no one person is accountable when a mistake is made or no action is taken. As the city has grown, the lack of accountability has created confusion and waste in city operations and sparked grinding frustration among residents.

For example, in March the city had to pay $800,000 in late fees for unpaid telephone bills. Why? Because no one who knew the bills were overdue had the authority to pay them. Nearly a million dollars in taxpayer funds was squandered on delinquent charges because the charter puts no one person or agency in charge.

If you want a tree trimmed or a pothole in your street filled, do you call your City Council member? The mayor's office? The Department of Public Works? The existing charter gives all of these agencies some power but none the sole responsibility.

The clearer lines of authority in the proposed charter mean someone will be accountable for mistakes or inaction. For one thing, the mayor can more easily dismiss a department head who's not doing his or her job or can reorganize a failing department. For another, the new charter requires regular performance audits of city departments to make sure they are doing their jobs and providing services in a timely, cost-effective way.

That's real reform. To get it, vote yes on Measure 1 on June 8. Otherwise, it's business as usual downtown.

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