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A City Running Out of Accountability : Why should top city managers have lifetime guarantees?

The continuing public outrage over the beating of Rodney King by police officers has reminded Los Angeles that its chief of police enjoys a degree of civil service protection accorded to virtually no other police chief in the United States. The chief serves not at the pleasure of an elected mayor or city council, as in most other cities. Rather, the city Charter allows the Los Angeles police chief to serve, in effect, at his own pleasure.

Angelenos must also remember that these same unprecedented protections extend to most other city department heads and assistant department heads. What amounts to lifetime job protection has produced a series of scandals in recent years involving the former city treasurer, general services manager and zoo director. Without the ability to fire incompetent managers, the mayor and the council are reduced to pleading with these individuals--on bended knee and sometimes with an open city checkbook--to step down. Is this the sort of city government that Los Angeles really wants?

This city’s unique personnel system has its origins in the Progressive “good government” movement that swept American cities in the early 20th Century. Right-thinking citizens once reasoned that civil servants could best serve the public when they were beyond the reach of elected officials. Rampant political corruption in Los Angeles during the 1930s only intensified popular belief in the need to isolate department heads from removal by the mayor or council.

FATAL FLAW: As a result, accountability has become almost synonymous with cronyism in the parlance of L.A. politics. The growing community effort to oust Police Chief Daryl Gates is only the most extreme example of glaring weaknesses in the city’s personnel system that have been visible for some years now.

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The process of Charter reform must begin now. Five times since 1970, Los Angeles voters, responding to rhetoric about “creeping bossism,” defeated measures that would have streamlined the city’s personnel system and ensured accountability at the top.

NEEDED EXEMPTIONS: Several proposals are on the table. Councilman Richard Alatorre has proposed establishing a renewable five-year term for the police chief. Mayor Bradley has extended Alatorre’s proposal to all city general managers. Councilwoman Joy Picus and the city Personnel Department have revived plans to create an “executive service” for general managers and the police chief, exempting these positions from civil service.

Each proposal requires council and voter approval. And none will apply retroactively to Gates or any other sitting department head.

Some of these reform proposals have been floating aimlessly through council committees for months; now it is too late for any to qualify for the coming June ballot. But the City Council, which has kept an appallingly low profile on the Gates issue, must begin to exhibit some leadership.

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First, the council must decide which proposal makes the most sense for this city. As a minimum, the city must dislodge all its general managers--including the police chief and assistant general managers--from civil service protection to allow for greater accountability. If the council opts for a term proposal, it should define a fairly generous one--such as five or six years--to minimize turnover and cronyism. The council must also make the lines of accountability crystal clear: While the council and the mayor could share appointment power, the mayor alone must have the power of removal.

At a minimum, the council also must begin now to educate Los Angeles voters on the critical need for charter reform. The LAPD controversy illustrates not only the need for changes in the Police Department but for managerial reform at all top layers of the city. The principle of accountability must be reclaimed.


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