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The Incivility of L.A. Government

April 02, 2000|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Welfare, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles

We have grown accustomed to partisan bickering in Washington. Ideological differences in Congress explains Washington's low productivity, but they don't account for the lack of comity in Los Angeles. We don't have a partisan divide. We don't usually have an ideological one. But the city has an unworkable government, and it's not because of its structure. L.A. government is on the verge of breaking down because its leaders have no patience with each other and routinely threaten to bring the public's business to a halt. Politics is always tough, because it involves competition among interests and egos. But the obvious lack of civility in Los Angeles government today has reached the point where it is reasonable to ask why.

For years, the mayor's office has declined to confer with the City Council, telling members they should leave the running of the city to the mayor and pay more attention to their districts. Richard Riordan frequently schedules press conferences while the City Council is in session. But his staff was far more impolitic than that when it recently slammed a door on Councilwoman Rita Walters' arm in an effort to bar her and several colleagues from a press conference on Rampart.

Privately, the mayor has ordered general managers not to speak to council members without first going through his office. He has fired--or tried to fire--personnel who are required to report both to the council and the mayor, such as chief administrator William T. Fujioka. His school board's eagerness to change things increased racial tension in the city when its members fired Supt. Ruben Zacarias without regard to the man or his supporters in the Latino community. Zacarias' replacements, Ramon C. Cortines and Howard Miller, are said to be as disrespectful of subordinates as the board.

Then there was Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' declaration that he wasn't going to cooperate with Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti on the Rampart corruption investigation. Such arrogance of power filters down to the cop on the beat in the form of racial profiling. It carries beyond government to the Valley secessionists, who also abide no opposition.

One explanation for this incivility flows from Riordan's and his staff's original mission to "turn Los Angeles around." When they applied it to government workers, that meant incompetence, rather than declining resources, was the cause of failing city services. The mayor views the council similarly, regarding its members as annoyances armed with self-serving political agendas.

But there are other explanations. There is, for instance, California's political culture, which values amateurism over professionalism. Before term limits, elected officials worked hard to depersonalize their differences. Less so today. There is just not enough time to cultivate potential allies. But council members, now facing term limits for the first time, have always had trouble developing bonds among themselves.

Another factor is an inconsistency in U.S. political culture: Public service is a noble enterprise, yet it is a standard that professional politicians can never meet. In California, this means we elect people who don't know the rules, who don't know the nuances of getting legislation through, who don't have time to develop consensus before they are ready to return private life or move on to the next office, and who don't have preexisting alliances to help them along. This combination of ignorance and pride in being ignorant encourages disrespect--and that certainly fits L.A. Interestingly, the best-working government in town today is the county Board of Supervisors, who are not term-limited and who have learned through hard struggle to get along.

The breakdown of civility in L.A. today could have disastrous repercussions. It has before. Rather than petulance from city officials, we need leaders who recognize strengths and weaknesses in individuals as well as in city institutions. Riordan recently described himself as a father trying to bring peace among warring children. If his analogy is to be meaningful and productive, he should bear in mind that these "children" who head departments and are independently elected are not 3-year-olds: They cannot be sent to bed without their dinner.

Wise parents know that the best solution is to convince a daughter that what should be done is something she wants to do. That requires vision. That's leadership. *

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