Don't let a false promise of voter turnout kill L.A.'s independent elections

Don't let a false promise of voter turnout kill L.A.'s independent elections
A polling place in Venice sits empty the morning of L.A.'s election day in 2013. (Los Angeles Times)

If two charter amendments headed to Los Angeles voters March 3 get approved, it will make it next to impossible for candidates who aren't party insiders, or the darlings of labor or business interests, to run for and win city office in L.A.

Charter Amendment 1 and Charter Amendment 2 would move city and school board elections to June and November in even years from March and May in odd years to coincide with state and federal elections. The professed goal is to increase voter turnout, but I believe that's a smokescreen. The proposals miss that objective while tilting the playing field in favor of special interests and in ways detrimental to good representation for residents.

First, there's turnout. Higher turnout alone doesn't necessarily mean a higher percentage of voters who are engaged and knowledgeable on local races and issues. Besides, voter turnout in three of our last four odd-year city elections for mayor actually exceeded the even-year turnout, which has been especially weak in primary elections. Yet primaries are where most of our local elections get decided (over that period, 78% of City Council and school-board elections were determined in primaries). So the promise of voter turnout rings false.

Selling the amendments to voters on the basis of encouraging voter participation also masks the fact that the terms of some officials who wrote the measures would be extended 18 months to accommodate the change in the elections schedule. Did self-interest drive that decision?

Now our odd-year local elections are distinct for voters; they focus on local issues and debates. And L.A. elections are nonpartisan. Combining city contests with state and federal elections will undoubtedly mean infusing our nonpartisan tradition with party politics.

Worse, our local elections would be relegated to the bottom of a very long ballot, and to the bottom rung of public attention. News coverage of city governance is already scant. Community forums and neighborhood council debates involving candidates for council are rare. Imagine what will happen when people running for City Council must compete with simultaneous presidential, Senate, House, statewide offices, state legislative, and state ballot measure campaigns.

Just as disturbing are the new realities of fundraising on a landscape reshaped by these charter amendments. Instead of being able to wage a solid campaign for City Council with $150,000 or $200,000, the dynamics of having to run amid the noise of competing state and federal campaigns is likely to make a City Council campaign two or three times more costly to wage, perhaps at least $500,000.

Which candidates will be best able to muster more money? Candidates with a background in Sacramento fundraising. Already, 7 out of 15 members of the City Council are former Sacramento legislators, including Herb Wesson, the council president who authored these charter amendments.

And who will fill the gap in the budgets of candidates who hope to stand a chance? Big donors in business and labor who have a lot at stake in tax, contract and compensation decisions made by elected city leaders. These very forces are strongly supporting the charter amendments, which could tighten their hold on city policy and policymakers.

Finally, the responsibility for running city elections would move to the county, with an unknown price tag per election. The start date of 2020 was set with no guarantee that the technology and resources are in place to make it happen smoothly. Those in favor of the amendments refused to consider a test run or requiring the county to certify that it could pull off fully meshed elections without problems. Imagine having to vote in two locations the same day. That's a possibility.

I am about to be termed out after 12 years of serving the 8th District. If the new election rules pass, they will not affect my time on the City Council. But I believe they would make it harder for someone like me — whose entry into public service was wearing a police officer's uniform and swearing an oath, not playing party politics or arranging for campaign donations —- to get elected in Los Angeles.

Voters in March should ask themselves: Do seats on City Council and the school board belong to communities and voters, or do they belong to special interests and political parties? I hope Angelenos will vote against Charter Amendments 1 and 2.

Bernard C. Parks, former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a member of the City Council.


Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion