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Boroughs, Instead of 'Winning Ugly'

This option could help heal secession campaign wounds.

July 12, 2002|ROBERT M. HERTZBERG | Assemblyman Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) was Assembly speaker from 2000 to 2002.

It's only July, and already election day looms large on the horizon. On Nov. 5, the voters of Los Angeles will decide whether it's better to divide our city into two or three separate cities or to leave Los Angeles unchanged. I believe there is a better way to go: boroughs.

If secession succeeds, it would be the greatest act of political division in U.S. history since the South seceded from the Union. If secession fails, it may be because of a largely divisive, negative campaign designed to undermine and discredit the secession movement at any cost.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain--it won't be a pretty sight. You might call it "winning ugly." Either way, it will be a bleak outcome.

The undeniable truth is that there is a high level of dissatisfaction in this city. Certain communities feel disconnected from their city government. Many neighborhoods feel ignored with regard to issues such as street repair, parks and police protection. These crucial local services are being administered from too great a distance--and the system of delivering those services isn't working.

I believe our city needs a more flexible system of government that is more local, less bureaucratic and more reflective of the diverse needs of our neighborhoods. Separating Los Angeles into boroughs with local community representatives would put government where the people live and allow control of local services at the local level.

Boroughs would empower communities to make decisions about services, such as senior centers, after-school programs, street maintenance and parks and recreation. At the same time, a board of the borough presidents would preside over citywide decisions, ensuring that regional interests were fairly balanced and that the critical needs of all citizens were protected.

When I entered the debate over secession, I was fully aware that the votes weren't there in the City Council to put a borough system of government before the voters. When was the last time anyone you know voted themselves out of a job? But for several reasons, I still believe it has a chance.

First, in a borough system, each borough would elect its own president. These positions would require high executive skills as well as legislative ones, as each president would divide his or her time between local interests and regional concerns. The current City Council members would make ideal candidates for these positions.

Second, never before has there been such a wave of newly elected members on the City Council, each fresh from election campaigns in which they faced growing unrest throughout the city. All of these council members have heard the message the people are sending and have expressed their desire to respond to the demand for change.

Third, this proposal doesn't add layers of government. It divides the responsibility of governing into local and regional authorities where problems can be effectively dealt with.

Some have expressed concern that a borough system might undermine the efforts of the neighborhood councils that are just beginning to take root in communities throughout Los Angeles. Both systems share the same goal--to engender community involvement--and each system contributes toward that end in different ways.

The neighborhood councils are provided with advisory powers. The scope of their influence is limited to making recommendations, not decisions. Each borough board would be made up of elected officials empowered to make local decisions affecting their community. The neighborhood councils would provide direct input critical for the borough boards to make those decisions.

It will be for the City Council to determine in the coming days what best belongs on the November ballot. Whatever it decides, I am convinced that the future of our city lies in a borough system of government. It is the only way to maintain the unity of our identity and redistribute power to local communities in a way that empowers neighborhoods in determining their own destinies.

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