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BREAKING UP L.A. | NEWS ANALYSIS

Promises of Boroughs Nothing New in L.A.

July 18, 2002|SUE FOX and NITA LELYVELD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For a few short weeks, borough plans were the latest craze in Los Angeles politics. With the threat of secession bearing down, several lawmakers latched onto the notion as a way to diffuse power outside City Hall without breaking up Los Angeles.

But then the secessionists' citywide poll numbers faltered and a City Council that preaches the virtues of power-sharing let the idea die.

So it goes throughout Los Angeles history. When the outlying areas start grumbling, downtown leaders vow to give them more voice and power. Then the promises are forgotten or small reforms are substituted for substantive power-shifting ones, until anger threatens to erupt once again.

Few people paw through Los Angeles' political past. If they did, they'd know the borough concept is one of the city's golden oldies.

Boroughs helped make Los Angeles big; the city dangled the promise of them to persuade San Pedro, Wilmington and the San Fernando Valley to annex.

Ever since, the city has used the appeal of boroughs to stay big, raising the prospect virtually every time those same areas have complained loudly about how they're treated. Los Angeles has tossed out--and then snatched back--the idea at least six times over the past century.

The basic idea of boroughs is to increase representation by propelling power into a city's far-flung neighborhoods. Los Angeles has grown tremendously, but its City Council hasn't; the 15 members now represent about 250,000 people apiece.

Boroughs will be back--the city's history all but ensures that--especially if secessionists come close to winning cityhood in the Valley or Hollywood on Nov. 5, and the city feels the need to appease them.

"The history of L.A. is a history of sweeteners," UC San Diego political scientist Steven P. Erie said. "They're used tactically to head off discontent."

The city's earliest borough bait dates to 1909, when Los Angeles, angling to acquire land for a harbor, wooed San Pedro and Wilmington to join the city by offering local control and money for civic improvements. Los Angeles voters even approved a charter amendment allowing for newly acquired areas to form boroughs to "regulate and control all local municipal affairs."

At first, though, the state Constitution did not provide for boroughs. A 1911 amendment fixed the problem. But by then, the city was pouring money into the harbor area, so no one pushed for autonomy, said James W. Ingram III, a political scientist at San Diego State University who has written about the history of Los Angeles charter reform.

The contentment didn't last. In 1917, when Wilmington activists demanded a borough for their area, the City Council used legal technicalities to block them, a move backed up by the California Supreme Court.

"There's a lot of natural inertia to the system; bureaucracy, the various unions, various council members create real resistance to change," Ingram said. "So the real changes that would make a difference in the city mostly get buried. So many radical reform ideas have come in here, and all have gone the way of the dodo. And historically, the City Council has been the greatest force to preserve the status quo."

So it went in 1925, when the city wrote a new charter that included boroughs, giving them real clout. But the charter allowed the council to block borough creation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, secession rumblings in the Valley, harbor area and Westside prompted another flurry of borough proposals, which went nowhere.

The council yanked a plan for neighborhood boards out of a proposed charter (which voters ultimately rejected) in 1970. In 1973, the city legislative analyst said the original borough provision in the 1925 charter was obsolete, and voters agreed to remove it.

Boroughs tend to be offered as a lure only in times of pressure, said Ingram.

"You would never see a push for boroughs if it weren't for secession. In the past, the city has always blocked them," he said. "We're talking about way back to stopping the original boroughs in the harbor."

Just what a borough is anyway depends on who is talking. Over the years, they've been defined both as mini-governments with broad powers and as advisory boards informing the city of neighborhood points of view. Often, conflicting definitions have surfaced in a single debate.

Though people agree that change is needed, what form that change should take has long been a sticking point.

Three years ago, Los Angeles voters approved a new city charter only after a combative, two-year process involving two separate charter commissions (the result of a dispute between the mayor and the council).

Erwin Chemerinsky, the USC law professor who led the elected charter commission, said his panel thoroughly considered boroughs--although people called them "elected neighborhood councils with decision-making authority" instead.

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