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Political theater

In the battle between L.A.'s city attorney and controller, the real issue is government accountability.

August 13, 2008

At the core of the City Charter that Los Angeles voters adopted in June 1999 was one simple goal: to allow the people to hold their elected representatives more completely accountable for their official actions and for the operations of city government. It would be troubling, to say the least, if the charter's enhanced accountability turned out to be so feeble, so vaporous that it could be circumvented by simply moving around the pieces on the city organization chart.

Now City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo has taken the rather bumptious step of suing Controller Laura Chick to block her equally aggressive attempt to subpoena his lawyers, and the dispute centers on whether a certain clause in the charter allows or prevents Chick from auditing programs housed in the office of an elected official. The theater of it -- two politicians going after each other, each willing to spend scarce city money in an attempt to prevail -- can be taken as entertaining, irritating or both, but it is in the end a sideshow. The central question is whether accountability among Los Angeles elected officials really is possible. We assert that it is -- but not without public vigilance, some ponderous and patience-trying discussion, and the occasional constitutional crisis.

The dispute is welcome, even if it winds up in court. In intervening, as it did Tuesday, the City Council must choose whether to sweep the dispute into a backroom for closed-door talks among the elected "family" or, instead, to clarify in the open whether it believes voters really changed anything -- and how they changed it -- when they adopted a charter that calls for a more political, assertive and powerful controller.

More political? Absolutely. In his complaint, Delgadillo alleges that Chick's actions are politically motivated. And of course they are, just as his are. The controller and city attorney are both elected offices. Candidates campaign, they raise money, they make promises, they get elected, then they try to get reelected. They are politicians. The notion that an elected official can be apolitical is absurd.

For years, Los Angeles had a controller with no actual authority beyond making sure that the checks were paid and the books balanced. "Bookkeeping, bookkeeping and more bookkeeping," is how Charles Navarro, city controller from 1961 to 1977, described the job to The Times on his retirement. Auditing and testing the effectiveness of city programs was a responsibility of civil servants and was deemed too important to be left to politicians.

But some L.A. leaders and reformers chafed at the slow pace of government and elected officials' lack of power, especially when compared with other city governments. They wanted a stronger mayor, and that meant a mayor with more power to make decisions unencumbered by the City Council. Such powers are inherently more political. A more political mayor meant -- to some -- having a stronger and more political controller to keep up.

Chick is in many ways the city's first controller, because she is so far the only one to have served under the new charter. She is figuring out her new powers as she goes, and she sometimes pushes the limits. That's a good thing, as long as she is acting on behalf of the public. But for any politician, the line between political and public interests is barely distinguishable. It's one of the hazards of a government in which elected officials have more power. They use it.

For all her power, Chick has a penchant for complaining that the mayor, the council and city departments fail to clean up their acts after her audits. That stance is disingenuous. As a politician, it is up to Chick to press other elected officials to do better. That's an inherently confrontational role.

So dysfunctional was Los Angeles government in the 1990s that there were two competing charter reform commissions -- one elected, and favored by Mayor Richard Riordan, and one appointed by city officials. They had differing views of L.A. government. The appointed commission wanted to streamline the City Charter and get the bugs out; the elected panel wanted a wholesale revamping with more vigorous and political checks and balances. They brought differing interpretations to the joint document they ended up putting before voters. Thousands of pages of reports backed up either side.

Even today, there is disagreement as to what they intended to do. The leader of one commission backs Chick's interpretation of her powers. The leader of the other backs Delgadillo's.

The issue has real-world ramifications. Earlier this year, Chick argued for transferring gang prevention and intervention programs into Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's office, expressly to allow the public to hold him accountable for their success or failure. She asserted that she would have the power to audit the programs for effectiveness just as easily in the mayor's office as she could when the programs were housed in the Community Development Department. Delgadillo said no.

The mayor has invited Chick to scrutinize the programs, but another mayor could decide to pull functions into his office and thus shield them from review. Los Angeles could be left with the worst of all possible worlds: a political structure that empowers politicians but allows them to avoid accountability. That must be prevented, whether it takes a court ruling, a ballot measure or even one more citizens overhaul of the government.

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