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City Charter Sleight of Hand

May 14, 2000

In less than two months, the new charter will govern Los Angeles. But the City Council is still struggling with decisions that will shape how well that charter will work. Here's some advice on two urgent items: First, ratify the voters' decision, not the mayor's, about who is to hold the city's purse strings. Second, cut the crying and adopt the sensible rules that the city attorney has drafted to restore some integrity to city offices.

The new charter creates an Office of Finance, reporting to the mayor, that will centralize revenue collection and issue licenses and permits. But charter drafters sensibly put other sensitive fiscal responsibilities, including revenue projection, debt projection, risk management and budget preparation, in a separate office, reporting jointly to the council and the mayor's office, both of which need a steady flow of independent information on the fiscal health of the city.

Undaunted, Mayor Richard Riordan proposed rejiggering the charter before it even takes effect. Last month, the council rejected that view and passed an ordinance implementing the charter's financial provisions as they were drafted. Riordan vetoed that ordinance earlier this month and is lobbying hard behind closed doors to make his veto stick. But the council should override Riordan's decision when the matter comes up again soon; failure to do so would break faith with voters who passed this charter.

Also before the council are procedures that flesh out the new charter's code of conduct, binding all elected city officials to "the highest standards of personal and professional conduct" and permitting censure of council members by their colleagues for "gross failure" to meet those standards. This month's debate over the draft censure rules--with members whining that the new rules could prompt censure motions for reasons of sexual orientation or political beliefs--was a clear expression of the distrust or dislike that council members feel toward one another. By approving the new charter last June, voters showed just how fed up they are with politics as usual at City Hall.

There's no question that it was Mayor Riordan who energized and pushed for charter reform against a tide of council resistance. Since reform passed, however, the council has generally worked hard to breathe life into the charter, wading through a sea of technical enabling ordinances. In these final weeks, it is the council that must keep its eye on the ball--and it is the mayor who should stay off the court.

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