Private Summit Planned on Divisive Charter Issue
The Los Angeles charter reform effort’s contentious debate over who should control land use shifted from public to private forums this week, as referees ranging from the mayor to a federal judge moved behind the scenes to seek common ground among antagonists.
The mediation efforts are informed by a history lesson from the last, unsuccessful effort at charter reform nearly 30 years ago. That proposal was defeated at the polls after a negative campaign by an affronted city employees union. That experience suggests that anything short of consensus among competing interest groups could again doom efforts to revise the 1925 document.
The fear is that a well-financed dissenter could sow concern among voters, who probably would not focus on the debate until an election looms next spring. Such an opponent could persuade voters that it is a surer bet to stay with the government structure they know than to gamble on something new.
The main, behind-the-scenes mediation effort has been launched by the Elected Charter Reform Commission, which has abruptly halted its own consideration of land use questions and organized a closed-door meeting of representatives from 16 labor, business, homeowner and civil rights groups, as well as from one of the city’s most successful, informally operating neighborhood councils.
The invitation-only meeting at USC today, to be refereed by retired federal Judge William A. Norris, is being held in the hope that a consensus can be reached that would save the overall charter reform effort.
The big issue concerns what role, if any, neighborhoods should play in deciding how land is used. Land use decisions are now made by citywide entities. But a number of homeowner groups and commissioners have been passionately committed to the idea that neighborhoods should have an unprecedented, formal role in making appealable decisions through elected neighborhood councils.
The untried idea of giving formal power to neighborhoods has given business groups a fit. They raise the specter of a crippling, additional layer of bureaucracy consisting of parochial decision-makers who would reject too many opportunities for economic growth because they don’t want more development in their own backyards.
It also has alarmed some elements of organized labor, particularly the building trades, which fear that construction jobs would be lost.
Labor is far from united, however. The most powerful city employees union supports decision-making neighborhood councils.
Mayor Richard Riordan, who spearheaded the current charter reform drive and supports advisory-only neighborhood councils, has conducted his own diplomatic shuttle between big business and some elements of the labor movement to point out that they share some common concerns.
Working through his chief of staff, Robin Kramer, he brokered an unusual, as yet unpublished joint statement by Los Angeles’ ranking union official, Miguel Contreras, executive secretary of the County Federation of Labor, and Mike R. Bowlin, chairman of multibillion-dollar Arco. Bowlin heads the Los Angeles Business Advisors, a group of 24 corporate chief executives, including the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and two other members of the board of Times Mirror Co., which owns The Times, that has taken a tough stance against decision-making neighborhood councils and has publicly predicted that their inclusion in a proposed charter would lead to its defeat.
A text of the Contreras-Bowlin statement, submitted for publication to The Times’ opposite-editorial page, was unavailable. Neither the editor of the page nor Contreras nor the business advisors group would provide it to a reporter.
But in an interview, Contreras said he and Bowlin concur in the article that provisions for neighborhood councils should not be written into a proposed charter, which is difficult to change, because amendments must be approved by voters.
“The common ground is . . . let’s give it thorough thought and maybe put [development of neighborhood councils] in the hands of the City Council,” Contreras said. “We shouldn’t rush into a one-size-fits-all agenda.”
Contreras said he thinks that the neighborhoods ought to “have a say on things like liquor stores and bars and adult entertainment.” He said he also believes that they should have a voice in deciding how neighborhood improvement funds are spent. “We want to give real authority,” he said. But exactly how needs more study.
Bowlin’s group has argued against any kind of formalized neighborhood councils and in favor of a radical expansion of the City Council, which it says can be accomplished without spending more money.
The elected commission’s invitation-only session grew out of a suggestion 10 days ago by Commissioner Paula Boland. She likes the idea of decision-making neighborhood councils, but is still trying to figure out a way to give them incentives to make land use decisions that are in the interests of the city as a whole.
After hearing in testimony before the commission an implied threat from the business advisors group to torpedo any charter that included neighborhood councils, and direct threats from a homeowners group to torpedo any charter that did not include neighborhood councils, Boland suggested getting business and homeowner groups together to try to work out their differences.
According to knowledgeable sources, commission Chairman Erwin Chemerinsky culled 16 invitees from names submitted to him by a variety of commissioners.
They include representatives of the leading city employees union, the building trades umbrella union, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., the Central City Assn. and business councils from South-Central and the Westside; homeowners groups from San Pedro, the Westside, San Fernando Valley and Eastside, a representative of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Empowerment Congress, an already up-and-running neighborhood council that advises City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
The elected charter commission has already voted tentatively to have elected neighborhood councils and to give them the power to control a small portion of the city budget, which they could use to fund optional city services, such as additional tree trimming or extended library hours. But it has postponed consideration of their role in land use.
Norris, a retired U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge, was enlisted by Chemerinsky, a USC law professor, to serve as a referee for the session, the sources said.
A few participants interviewed Tuesday were skeptical that the gathering of bodies would produce any meeting of minds.
But one possible meeting ground has already been staked out by a second, appointed charter revision commission that must win approval for its recommendations from the City Council before placing them on the ballot next spring.
The appointed commission has tentatively endorsed advisory neighborhood councils that would have first crack at certain, as yet unspecified city decisions. Developers, for example, could be required to make neighborhood councils their first stop in trying to sell their plans. The local councils would then make recommendations to the City Council.