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GOVERNANCE

No More Reform, Please

Secession, now boroughs. Why not see if the new charter works?

June 16, 2002|XANDRA KAYDEN | Xandra Kayden is a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research.

Los Angeles is processing political reform like a Cuisinart with a broken pause button. In response to calls to overhaul city government, L.A. citizens worked hard to revive a more than 75-year-old governmental structure that many felt had lapsed into a political coma. It took three years to write and adopt a new charter, and its implementation has been underway for less than two years. Among the City Charter's innovative features are neighborhood councils, which give residents a more direct voice in the affairs of their communities. The secessionists, as expected, were not placated by any of this, and the Hollywood and Valley clans successfully got their proposed divorce on the November ballot.

Now comes a third way--boroughs. One proposal would give an appointed commission a set of guidelines and charge its members with coming up with a borough scheme. Another plan, put together by former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, arrives fully formed. Both proposals only surfaced after it became clear that secession will be voted on, and neither, so far, has made it to the ballot as an alternative to busting up the city. For that to happen, the City Council would have to agree.

But wait a minute. Los Angeles has been reforming itself for nearly a decade (Remember the Christopher Commission?). Why rush to reform the city again when we barely have reform in place? Thomas Jefferson called for revolution every 20 years. We have at least another decade to go before we should start all over again.

The boroughs concept was an idea in the original charter but was never implemented. The provision was deleted from the charter in the early 1970s. Both charter reform commissions considered a borough system but rejected it in favor of neighborhood councils.

Yes, boroughs, or something resembling them, may have a place in a city like Los Angeles. Hertzberg has been interested in governmental reform for years and is an effective tinkerer. Yet there's a touch of irony in his desire to save the city from the secessionists. The Valley legislator, more than anyone else, moved the secession option along by pushing through a bill that took away the City Council's veto of secession attempts, arranged for state funding that made the secession studies possible and enormously strengthened the Local Agency Formation Commission that oversees proposed breakaways.

Hertzberg's solution to what he facilitated--as detailed as his borough system is--still constitutes as radical a departure as secession. For starters, his plan would eliminate the City Council, and its use of part-time politicians would be a nightmare for the city Ethics Commission. One reason resources never seem to go where they are most needed is political expediency. Rather than allocate funds according to need and argue over whose need is greater, it is more collegial to divide the money by districts: five at the county level, 15 at the city. That way, politicians don't have to fight with each other over issues that really matter. If we use population as the basis and divide by nine--the number of boroughs proposed by Hertzberg--what about need?

As it happens, there is a borough-like alternative embedded in the neighborhood-council system the new charter created. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment staff is decentralized into three areas of the city, but clearly more division will be needed as more councils are certified (37 now, more than 80 are in the pipeline). Each of the seven area planning commissions, which have real authority, works with councils within its boundaries. If constituency service centers were added to the neighborhood council and planning department staffs, as is the case in the 8th District Empowerment Congress created by Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, every city department would have a desk at the level of the seven area planning commissions, bringing government closer to residents and making it easier for departments to talk to one another.

There is no perfect form of government. There is only what people can agree to, as we did overwhelmingly with the new charter. It countless hearings and a genuine consensus based on compromise to achieve the reform embodied in the charter. It seems rather late in the day to propose a radically different course.

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