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Term Limits Closing the Door on an Era at L.A. City Council

With members maxed out in just eight years, quirks have less time to flourish. And lawmakers can't take on very long-term crusades.

March 11, 2003|Sue Fox, Jean Merl and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Remember the days when lobbyists would roam the corridors of City Hall at Christmastime, handing out bottles of the finest scotch? When cigar smoke would waft defiantly from Council President John Ferraro's office, despite the smoking ban?

And when lawmakers, untroubled by term limits, could pummel away at a controversial issue -- such as stopping coastal oil drilling -- for years on end until they finally got their way?

These days, the Los Angeles City Council is a much younger, better-behaved and bouncier version of its former self. Term limits, approved by voters in 1993, are ushering the last of the old-timers out the door; 11 of 15 council members have been elected in the last four years, and last week's elections marked the end of the council tenure of its last three veterans, Ruth Galanter, Nate Holden and Hal Bernson. With them has been swept away decades of institutional knowledge and hard-won coalitions -- and also a lot of colorful history.

Limited to eight years of elected service, today's officials no longer have the luxury of building long-term alliances or tackling complicated projects that may take years to resolve, such as the dogged pursuit of a ban on coastal oil drilling, or Hal Bernson's long effort to shore up Los Angeles buildings against earthquakes, or former Councilman Marvin Braude's step-by-painstaking-step effort to ban smoking in restaurants and offices. The permanent government of lobbyists and bureaucrats has claimed a larger share of influence as elected leaders have pulled back, said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sat for nearly 20 years with the council.

One result has been a drift toward professionalism -- at the expense of idiosyncrasy.

Term limits, however, are not the sole reason for the shifting sands at City Hall. The city Ethics Commission, instituted in the early 1990s, cleaned up some of the old back-scratching with new restrictions on lobbyist gifts and campaign spending. The 1999 overhaul of the City Charter gave more power to the mayor at the expense of the council. In some cases, close campaigns made big differences -- in 2001, for instance, Jack Weiss narrowly beat Tom Hayden, bringing a relative newcomer to the panel and blocking the political aspirations of a passionate veteran of the American left.

Changing social mores, meanwhile, have altered the limits of acceptable behavior. They largely ended an era, for instance, when a councilman could get away with posing for photos with a pretty constituent on his lap.

"Politics has changed," said political consultant Rick Taylor. Behavior that did little more than raise eyebrows in times past could bring investigations and fines today. This also means that -- even as dress codes have loosened to permit more than gray, black and blue suits -- there is less flamboyance around the ornate council horseshoe.

Take Gil Lindsay, the self-proclaimed "Emperor of the Great 9th," the district that runs from the skyscrapers of downtown to the hardscrabble streets of South-Central. The former janitor, who became Los Angeles' first black council member, ruled over the district from 1963 until he died in office in 1990.

An old-style backslapper, Lindsay is remembered for his relentless push to develop downtown. And also for his disdain for election reforms, including laws that required reporting contributions. Once, he threw a fit when police gave him a parking ticket, huffing, "I thought they knew better than to ticket a councilman's car." Another time, he bopped a reporter on the head with his cane when the reporter ventured too close to the council horseshoe.

(That horseshoe itself is testament to the council's changing sensibilities. Today's members sit facing the audience, which is typical for local government officials in California. For decades, until the new City Hall reopened two years ago, Los Angeles council members sat with their backs to their constituents.)

During the 1970s and early 1980s -- what many see as the glory days of the old guard -- the City Council was peopled by diverse and flamboyant lawmakers. Despite their differences, they worked in concert with then-Mayor Tom Bradley on a broad, pro-growth agenda. They also were fun to watch. Many had worked together so long they often related like squabbling siblings. And without the television cameras that now beam their activities into their constituents' living rooms, they seemed less afraid of letting it all hang out. At times, the clashes were emotional and freighted.

Ready to Fight

Feisty Councilman Ernani Bernardi, who served from 1961 to 1993 in the 7th District seat now occupied by Council President Alex Padilla, once called Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas "Curly," stinging the younger councilman with what Ridley-Thomas took to be a racist remark. "Don't ever say that again!" he snapped back.

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