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Yes on 25-Member Council

May 16, 1999

On June 8, Los Angeles voters will be asked to make more than one choice about the proposed city charter. Measure 1 asks whether the proposed charter should replace the city's 75-year-old set of rules. We have enthusiastically endorsed this new document because it would streamline city operations, increase accountability and flexibility and give residents more opportunities to become involved in civic life.

Charter Amendments 3 and 4 ask voters whether the City Council should grow to 21 or 25 members, respectively.

To make representation mean something again in Los Angeles, we strongly endorse Amendment 4, which would increase the council to 25 members from the present 15. For it to pass, voters must approve the charter, Measure 1, and Amendment 4 must receive more yes votes than Amendment 3. The two measures unfortunately are bound to be confusing; that was the intent of some of their backers who favor the status quo 15-member council. But there are strong reasons to dump the status quo.

Los Angeles had about 700,000 residents in 1925 when the current charter was adopted. The city's growth alone--we number 3.5 million today--has made this charter outdated.

When the current charter was adopted, each of the 15 council members represented a manageable 83,000 people. Today each council district includes 230,000, larger by far than council districts in the rest of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Each district has about the same population as Rochester, N.Y., or Las Vegas. There's no way one person can effectively represent the interests and needs of so many people. Council members generally respond to their biggest campaign contributors and the loudest complainers while ignoring almost everyone else.

Voting for the charter alone won't change this reality. If only Measure 1 passes, the council will remain at 15 members. That new charter would give rise to a much more efficient, flexible and responsive government, but each resident would still be only one among nearly a quarter-million.

With 25 council members, however, representative democracy can begin to mean something again in Los Angeles. Districts would shrink from 230,000 people to a much more manageable 136,000, closer to the norm in other major cities.

With the current 15 council members, Woodland Hills is in the same district as Mar Vista; North Hollywood is lumped in with Pico-Robertson. Certainly the shapes of these districts reflect aggressive gerrymandering. But sheer size facilitates drawing such far-flung districts. With 25 council members, communities like Van Nuys and Sherman Oaks could get their own seats. The same might be true for Hollywood and the Palms-Mar Vista area. That would mean real neighborhood clout.

The current council often divides everything 15 ways. Police bonds, money to renovate outdated libraries or leaking swimming pools. Trouble is, neighborhoods don't necessarily have the same needs. A larger City Council, by virtue of its size alone, would make even-steven division less likely, opening the way for horse-trading among council members that, we hope, better addresses the needs of individual neighborhoods as well as the whole city.

Why not Measure 3, calling for a council of 21? Twenty-one council districts would of course be an improvement over 15, but 25 is better still. With 21 members, council districts would have 166,000 residents, instead of 136,000, and still would be larger than those in the rest of the 10 largest U.S. cities.

Opponents of a larger council have raised the issue of cost. We think some estimates have been exaggerated. How much more it might cost depends on the number of staff members and field offices each council member would have; with smaller districts, members arguably would need fewer deputies. Even if a little additional money is required to improve representation at City Hall, the benefit will be huge: smaller districts, better representation.

In asking for a yes on Measure 1 for charter reform, a no on Amendment 3 and a yes on Amendment 4 for a council of 25, we realize the opponents of change haven't made this easy. But what we've seen in the new charter tells us it is well worth special effort on the part of the voters.

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