Five members of the Los Angeles City Council are proposing a measure for the November ballot that would create a commission to devise a borough system for Los Angeles as an alternative to secession. Yet is this really the time to be talking boroughs?
With a likely secession election in November and a July deadline for placing a borough measure on the ballot, a discussion of boroughs raises a dizzying array of complex questions. Among them: Would a borough system dilute minority political representation? Will there be more politicians, bureaucracy and infighting?
The theory behind a borough system is to preserve the existing city while providing substantial political autonomy to various city regions. Clearly, charter reform was the most appropriate time to consider such a complex proposal. The overriding purpose of the two-year charter reform effort, passed in June of 1999, was to ward off secession by making city government more responsive to local communities.
The creation of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to oversee a system of neighborhood councils with advisory powers is perhaps the most well known of the changes. However, for secession groups such as Valley VOTE, the advisory nature of councils did not go far enough in providing "local control."
One of the ironies of recent calls for a borough system is that it was the secessionists who, during charter reform, advocated a system along the lines of what is now proposed. However, the idea was never given serious consideration by either the elected or appointed charter commissions and was opposed by the City Council, mayor and downtown business groups.
Another reason a discussion of boroughs seems misplaced is that the city already has a form of boroughs. Perhaps the most substantive, yet not well-known charter reform was the creation of area planning commissions in seven regions throughout the city. True, secessionists view these "planning boroughs" as institutionally weak. Yet, at this stage, wouldn't it make more sense to discuss strengthening existing institutions rather than creating new ones?
Clearly, the borough plan, which would need eight City Council votes to be put on the ballot, also raises uncomfortable questions for the council. It is hard to imagine members entrusting their political futures to a commission that might significantly erode their power or possibly legislate them into political obsolescence.
A danger in placing a borough proposal on the same ballot as secession is that it could undermine the legitimacy of the election. If it was widely perceived that voter confusion caused both measures to fail, such an outcome would enrage breakaway proponents. That would virtually ensure future paralyzing and divisive battles over secession.
In a city where secessionist suburbs have been a fixture of the political landscape since the 1920s, the possible silver lining of an up-or-down vote on secession is that the issue finally can be put to rest in a democratic fashion.
Adding boroughs to the discussion at this stage of the game would only further muddle an already confusing issue. Unless, of course, creating confusion serves some other purpose--such as defeating secession. In which case, the timing is perfect.
Tom Hogen-Esch teaches political science at Cal State Northridge and was a researcher for the Elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission.