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Comment and Analysis | GOVERNANCE

The Best Way to Bust Up L.A.

The boroughs would have real power, with control over basic city services. L.A.'s government structure was brilliantly designed for a different era.

June 09, 2002|JOEL KOTKIN and FRED SIEGEL | Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine and at the Milken Institute. Fred Siegel is a historian at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York City. Both were consultants to the Hertzberg plan.

The months leading up to the Nov. 5 election don't bode well for Los Angeles. The bruising battle over Valley and Hollywood secession will probably inflame the city's existing racial, class and ideological divisions. Likely to be overlooked in such a debate is the central question undergirding the secessionist impulse--the quality of governance in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles' government has a reputation as one of the least efficient and most expensive in the nation. The city ranks at or near the bottom in virtually every cost category, from services to the cost of doing business here, according to the Kosmont Cost of Doing Business Survey and the Reason Foundation. The city also suffers from a lack of political trust and from a low rate of political participation. A recent study of "civic capital" in 40 U.S. cities by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found that Los Angeles ranked near the bottom when it came to trusting other people and civic engagement.

Unfortunately, neither side in the secession battle has a plan to deal with these failures. The anti-secession side seems committed to scare tactics, while secession advocates have not made a convincing case for a new city other than to cite the failures of the old. To save Los Angeles in the long term, the city needs to find ways to make its governance more local, less bureaucratic and more reflective of the diverse needs of its neighborhoods. In short, it needs a framework for a new, more flexible system of governance.

Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat who represented Sherman Oaks, has worked out the basic outlines of such a system. In essence, his plan would jettison the City Council framework and replace it with a borough system. Each of the nine boroughs in the Hertzberg plan would serve as a kind of local municipality. The boundaries of the boroughs would be drawn to keep communities of geographic interest together. For example, Van Nuys, which the new Valley city would break up into several districts, would be kept whole in a proposed mid-Valley borough.

The boroughs would have real power, with control over such basic city services as housing, community development, parks, recreation and cultural affairs. A five-member council elected from districts of roughly 82,000--a size amenable to grass-roots campaigns--would run each borough. The representatives would be part-time legislators, a feature that would open the door to citizen-politicians. Local residents could call on their own "little city hall" to deal with their problems. People from Watts, San Pedro or Granada Hills would no longer have to trek downtown in search of basic services.

Critical services best controlled from downtown--police, fire, water, ports, airports and final zoning authority--would be handled by a council of borough presidents made up of the nine borough presidents. The council would be a forum for balancing local and citywide interests. The mayor would retain his expanded executive authority under the recently adopted charter. The proposed council differs from the current system in that each borough president would be someone with responsibility and operational control of a district. In other words, accountability would be introduced into the system.

Those who believe that only elites should hold power will resist Hertzberg's call for the diffusion of city government power. Those living off the current dysfunctional system--political consultants, some union officials, well-connected developers, to name a few--will find Hertzberg's plan equally noxious. So, too, will some die-hard secessionists, whose primary motivation often seems more about "getting even" than about creating a better and more responsive government.

Others will claim that Hertzberg's approach is too radical, too untested. Yes, the plan calls for a sharp departure from the status quo. Yet other great cities have adopted similar borough systems. In London, which did not have a central government until recently, local services have long been successfully provided on a borough basis. In New York City, quality-of-life services, such as garbage collection and street repairs, were most reliably delivered when the city had a strong, functioning borough system. Furthermore, the city's recent revival owed much to the decentralization of its parks, sanitation and business services.

New York City's borough system has atrophied over the years, no longer providing the strong sense of local civic identity that once knit together polyglot populations. Manhattan's overweening power--economic, cultural and political--is partly to blame. In the face of that dominance, borough governance was scaled back.

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