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Business Group Seeks 35-Member City Council

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A business group advocating a vastly expanded Los Angeles City Council as the best way to streamline government and satisfy cries for neighborhood empowerment released a study Monday showing that the council’s size could be more than doubled--and staffed at levels comparable to those of other big cities--at no additional cost. Currently, the group found, Los Angeles spends $800,000 annually per council office--far more than any other major city. Detroit comes in a distant second at $500,000. Chicago spends about $260,000 and New York about $200,000.

Los Angeles spends so much more partly because its council districts are far larger. Council members here are also the highest paid in the nation. They make $98,000 per year and are scheduled to receive a raise to $107,000. Unlike lawmakers in some other cities, they serve full time and are prohibited from having other jobs. They also fill unusual dual roles, functioning in staff-intensive administrative as well as legislative capacities.

The business group, an association of 24 corporate chief executives who call themselves the Los Angeles Business Advisors, wants to use current charter reform efforts to reshape the council’s role in city government, restricting it to more conventional legislative activities and leaving a mayor, with enhanced powers, in charge of administration.

The business group also wants to expand the council from 15 to 35 members as an alternative to creating a network of neighborhood councils.

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Such a City Council expansion would translate into much smaller districts, with about 100,000 residents apiece rather than the current 240,000, and the group argues that this would give constituents easier access to their representatives.

The Business Advisors is chaired by the Mike Bowlin, chairman of Arco. Another of its members is Mark Willes, chairman of the Times Mirror Co., parent of the Los Angeles Times. He also serves as the newspaper’s publisher. Two other members are also members of Times Mirror’s board of directors.

The report was prepared principally by a paid consultant, lawyer Michael Keeley, who formerly served as chief of staff to Mayor Richard Riordan. Under Riordan, he also oversaw preparation of the mayor’s annual proposed city budget.

City Council President John Ferraro, whom the group provided with a copy of the report on Monday, declined to comment, saying through a spokeswoman that he had not had time to read it.

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The Business Advisors acknowledged that expansion would be difficult to sell to voters who have rejected proposed expansions of the council and the county Board of Supervisors, whose five members represent more than 9 million residents.

But the business group said it believes voters can be convinced to support a large expansion if they are convinced that the larger council will cost no more. It pledged to commit its resources to such a campaign.

Dividing the amount currently allocated for council office budgets would reduce staffing levels from 17 to six per office and would lead to about a 16% increase in the number of constituents each council staff member would have to serve, the report said.

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But staffing would still be at levels similar to Detroit, Philadelphia and Houston and higher than in New York. It would be less than Chicago on a per-constituent scale.

New York and Chicago have 50- and 51-member city councils.

The group did not advocate tampering with the approximately $7 million budgeted for the office of the chief legislative analyst, which provides expertise on a wide variety of matters to all of the council offices. It said such information would be needed more than ever under its preferred arrangement.

But the group noted that the legislative analyst’s budget, combined with the council’s $12-million budget, had shot up by nearly 40% during the last eight years--more than 56 times the rate of growth for other city departments combined.

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The business group’s full-time staff member, Sam Bell, said in an interview that it had not examined reasons for the escalation.

Bell said the group hoped that a public discussion would ensue on whether council members should be paid less and whether, as in New York, they should serve part time and be allowed to hold outside jobs. Los Angeles City Council members’ salaries are pegged to the current pay of Municipal Court judges.

Two current charter reform commissions that are aiming to put their recommendations for a revised local government structure before voters next spring have tentatively approved a stronger mayor and a more restrictive legislative role for the city council.

But they have embraced different neighborhood empowerment schemes.

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The elected charter commission, which has the authority to put its recommendations directly on the ballot, has tentatively approved creating a network of elected neighborhood councils with the power to make decisions on local budget matters. It is grappling with whether such councils should also be able to decide local land use questions.

A second, appointed charter commission, whose efforts will have to be approved by the council before they can be submitted to voters, has tentatively suggested a more modest council expansion, to 21 members. It has also proposed still another approach--creating mechanisms to encourage neighborhoods to form advisory panels in a manner of their choosing.

Some business groups--and some individual members of the Business Advisors--have said they could live with the advisory approach, but have suggested they will campaign against decision-making neighborhood councils as an unwarranted additional layer of government and a way for neighborhood activists to obstruct economic growth.


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