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Nasty Turn on Charter Reform

May 19, 1999

Just three weeks before Los Angeles voters will decide whether to reform their city government, the campaign has turned nasty.

The Times, along with neighborhood groups, business and labor leaders, civic activists and others, has urged a yes vote on Measure 1, to adopt a new charter. It would modernize the city's byzantine, inefficient and costly operations and guarantee neighborhood residents an effective voice at City Hall. But some on the City Council who see themselves as having the most to lose from reform have made no secret of their disdain from the beginning.

In an unsuccessful effort to derail proposals for an elected charter commission, the council appointed its own commission in 1996. No doubt some council members hoped that bickering and competition between the two commissions--and between the mayor and the council--would doom serious reform. It almost did, but in March, with a consensus proposal before it, the City Council had to put charter reform before voters, even as several members declared themselves personally opposed.

Now, a majority of the council is determined to see that Measure 1 fails on June 8. In recent weeks, the council has simply stonewalled requests from the elected reform commission to fund voter education panels that would present arguments on both sides. The absence of a real campaign in support of the measure, despite fund-raising by Mayor Richard Riordan, has meant that it's mostly opponents who are being heard.

Apparently, intimidation is part of the game as well. Earlier this month, one city department proposed hosting a forum to discuss the new charter. When it appeared that all the invited speakers supported the measure, the department canceled the forum, since city ethics rules require that such meetings present both sides. But the council, with great indignation, still asked the city attorney and Ethics Commission to investigate. That should thoroughly chill any other city agency trying to pursue voter education.

Meanwhile, individual council members are twisting arms and making promises in a bid to bury the charter proposal. Council President John Ferraro, who had backed the new charter, has reversed himself, reportedly out of fear that charter foes on the council might try to remove him as president. Ferraro has joined the opposition and is shamelessly trying to persuade groups that endorsed the measure, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League, to back away from it as well.

These sorry antics argue more strongly than any ballot argument that change in the ground rules at City Hall is long overdue. Measure 1 would break the stranglehold the current council has on city operations, introduce accountability and ensure that the city responds to the needs of residents rather than just the politicians.

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