City Charter Outmoded, Critics Say : Government: The power-sharing of mayor, council and appointed commissions no longer works in diverse metropolis, experts contend.


The legal battle between the Los Angeles City Council and the Police Commission over who controls the Police Department has raised new concerns about the ability of the city's 66-year-old form of government to function in a rapidly changing and diverse metropolis like Los Angeles.

Some city officials, political scientists and others said the court ruling this week in the power struggle over the Police Department underscores a larger, more fundamental crisis in the city's system of government. If it goes uncorrected, they said, lawmakers may find the city ungovernable as it moves toward the 21st Century.

"The fact that the city was designed to be a white, Anglo-Saxon middle-class structure, and it is not anymore, has powerful ramifications," said political scientist Xandra Kayden, who last year helped draft the city's ethics reform law and is now a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate School. "There is no mechanism in Los Angeles to foster consensus or coalition."

At issue, Kayden and others said, is the City Charter's intentional sharing of authority among the mayor, council members and city commissioners in an effort to vest private citizens with a direct role in government.

The power-sharing worked in the decades when the city was more homogenous and political consensus was easier to achieve, officials said. But they said cases of bureaucratic gridlock have occurred in recent years as the city has grown more diverse and new groups look to City Hall for solutions to problems ranging from inadequate social services to neighborhood crime.

When the council, mayor and commissioners strongly disagree--as in the debate over Chief Daryl F. Gates and the Rodney G. King beating--power struggles and confusion can result. Some residents complain that it is often difficult to know who is in charge in such situations.

"I sense an urgency and need to review the respective roles (of the mayor, council and commissioners) and make sure the lines of authority and power are clarified," said Elwood Lui, a retired associate justice of the state Court of Appeal and a member of a group studying possible revisions of the City Charter. "The whole Charter needs to be recodified."

City officials said they do not know what the solution is, but said they expect the debate to intensify in light of the King controversy.

The Charter, last redrafted in 1925, set up the commission system to take politics out of the hands of politicians by giving citizen panels many powers traditionally reserved for elected officials.

But efforts are under way to rewrite the Charter over the next three years--and officials say the options include eliminating commissions, strengthening the powers of the City Council and the mayor and redefining the role of commissions.

The City Council does not intend to wait three years to increase its powers. A measure on the June 4 ballot would give the council authority on an issue-by-issue basis to review actions of the city's 40 commissions whose members are appointed by the mayor.

Council members said the measure would help address problems with "unaccountable" commissions. But Mayor Tom Bradley, who accidentally authorized the measure for the ballot, has described it as a "naked power grab" on the part of the council.

Councilwoman Joy Picus said she receives a steady stream of complaints from constituents who say they are confused and angered by the City Council's inability to control some commission decisions. Before the Police Commission controversy, criticism focused on the decision last year by the Community Redevelopment Agency's Board of Commissioners to pay Director John Tuite $1.7 million to leave the agency--a deal struck without City Council approval.

"It's time to question the whole role of citizen commissions," Picus said. "This was an appropriate form of government in 1925, and it served us reasonably well during the '60s and '70s. The '90s are very different times."

Police Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum said that a weakened commission system would leave commissioners with few responsibilities and powers. "To take away the checks and balances system, which is the heart of the American governing process, has to be of concern, or else the power will be too concentrated in one body," he said. "The point is to have the power diffused. We try to pride ourselves on being a decentralized system."

The system of citizen commissions grew out of the Progressive movement in the early 1900s, a time when Los Angeles was smaller and more homogenous and reformers wanted to weaken the mayor and City Council. The movement led to creation of voter initiatives, recalls and nonpartisan local elections--all of which were intended to decrease corruption and increase the clout of so-called right-minded citizens, regarded at the time as middle- and upper-class Anglos.

The dramatic evolution of Los Angeles over the past few decades into a city of many colors and cultures tugging away at city government has led some officials to conclude that the system of diffused power is no longer suited for governing the city.

"You wouldn't have this problem if the city hadn't changed," Kayden said. "The system was fine so long as there was general agreement and shared values. The intent (of the Charter) was to make government as passive as possible. But now, we seem to need decisions made. People have a higher expectation of government."

In today's more heterogeneous Los Angeles, critics argue, commissioners hold too much power for political appointees not directly accountable to voters. The city's commissioners are appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley and confirmed by the City Council, which very rarely rejects a nominee.

At the heart of the problem, several officials said, is the political nature of commission appointments.

Although Bradley is credited with making a better effort than his predecessors to name a cross-section of residents, his choices for the city's most powerful commissions are still regarded largely as politically motivated. Of the 244 commissioners, 107 contributed a total of $673,661 to Bradley election campaigns between 1983 and 1989.

As a result, critics contend, the city's commissions do not mirror the changing face of Los Angeles, particularly its growing neighborhoods of poor and underprivileged residents.

"I am not sure the most qualified people to serve on commissions are those who have contributed financially to the mayor's election campaigns or are supporters of the mayor in general," said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores. "If all of the people on these boards and commissions are cut from the same mold as far as economics and politics and everything else, are we really getting the perspective of Los Angeles that we need?"

Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani said Bradley looks for commissioners "generally sympathetic with the mayor," but Bradley rejected assertions that his appointments exclude large segments of Los Angeles.

"The commissions of the city of Los Angeles are now the most diverse in the history of this city so I reject any suggestion of that kind," Bradley told reporters this week.

The authority of city commissions was dealt a potentially devastating blow this week when Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian ruled that the powers of the Police Commission are subordinate to those of the City Council. The controversial ruling has been appealed by the Police Commission, which contends it strips the citizen panel of its authority to run the Police Department.

Bradley and other proponents of the commission system have come out in support of the appeal. They argue that the judge's decision dangerously tips the balance of power in Los Angeles away from the citizen panels toward a more politicized council. Although Bradley has called for Charter reform in the past, he said this week he does not support a system that would eliminate commissions.

"I have served for 18 years," Bradley said. "I have not had any difficulty with the commission system of government. I think it is a sound system. It is a way of having the community participate in decisions affecting all these departments."

Under the City Charter, the city's commissions have a variety of tasks, many of them purely advisory. Commissioners, who are paid a nominal fee, oversee everything from the local dog catcher to the vast Port of Los Angeles. About half a dozen commissions, including the Police Commission, have specific powers to govern departments and name department heads, usually with minimal council involvement. Others, such as the Planning Commission, have no control over department matters and merely make recommendations to the mayor and council.

Raphael Sonenshein, an associate professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, said the city's commission system needs to be overhauled but he said the debate over its effectiveness really amounts to a power struggle that began several years ago when Bradley lost several key allies on the council.

"There has always been a bad Charter. This is a conflict among elected officials," said Sonenshein. "With a fairly unified set of elected officials, a lot of things were possible with the same city structure. Now that is over. It has become a pretty open power struggle."

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