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CHARTER REFORM: Why It Matters

Turn City Hall Around

May 30, 1999

On June 8 Los Angeles voters have the chance to make City Hall work for them again, not for the politicians. Right now, many of those politicians, especially on the City Council, are doing all they can to kill reform: lobbying, twisting arms and calling in favors. Voters should ignore the self-serving opposition and serve themselves with a yes vote on the proposed new city charter, Measure 1.

Measure 1 does not radically change city government but it makes several key improvements. Mayor Richard Riordan strongly supports this charter, as do City Council members Mike Feuer, Joel Wachs and Cindy Miscikowski. Add to that list Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, City Atty. James Hahn and Controller Rick Tuttle, as well as a raft of good-government groups. Opponents include some of the most entrenched City Hall insiders, including City Council President John Ferraro and a majority of his colleagues, some unions that originally pledged neutrality but switched to the opposition under relentless council pressure, some San Fernando Valley secessionists and the permanently suspicious and disgruntled. They reflexively insist that the new charter would only serve "special interests." Do they really expect other voters to believe that the current system does not serve special interests?

The nasty campaign against reform also shows how residents' interests can be ignored by the current council. To mend that, vote for Charter Amendment 4, on the same June 8 ballot. It would increase the size of the council from 15 to 25, spreading the power thinner and putting council members closer to residents. Amendment 4 is preferable to Amendment 3, which calls for just 21 council members.

Charter drafters did more than rewrite the existing 1925 charter; they rethought city government, keeping what has worked well, reformulating what hasn't.

Absent in this new charter is much of the duplication and mind-numbing detail that, over 75 years, ballooned the old charter to more than 700 pages of rigid, confusing rules. The drafters also thoughtfully--and modestly--restructured the role of the mayor and the City Council. Their goal was to correct the worst feature of the 1925 charter: that no one is in charge and no one is accountable when a mistake is made or action is not taken.

For example, the current charter requires the mayor to get a majority of the City Council to agree in order to fire poorly performing department heads. This threshold has harbored some real duds at City Hall who hung on by persuading seven council members that their dismissals would be unwarranted or discriminatory. The current charter also lets the council revisit virtually any decision made by city commissions. The result is micromanagement, lack of accountability and frustration on the part of residents because nothing gets done.

The new charter grants the mayor more authority. The changes aren't dramatic but they could make things happen again at City Hall. The mayor would be able to more easily dismiss department heads and commissioners who weren't performing. He or she would gain more power to reorganize city departments that were operating inefficiently, help direct the city's litigation, coordinate the city's response during a disaster and gain new authority to organize and manage the mayor's office.

Contrary to those who call this charter a Riordan power grab, the mayor and future mayors would hardly wield absolute power. By a two-thirds vote, the City Council could override mayoral decisions to dump general managers or reverse actions by most boards and commissions.

The new charter should help break the gridlock at City Hall by making the mayor more accountable to voters and departments more accountable to the public they serve, retaining the City Council's key legislative and policy role and setting standards for behavior in office. This is a good deal for voters, who are smart enough to understand that the increasingly strident opposition to reform comes mostly from those with something to lose. Vote yes on Measure 1 and yes on Charter Amendment 4 on June 8.

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