Is L.A. Charter Reform Headed for a Crash Landing?

Marc B. Haefele is a staff writer and columnist at LA Weekly

Is this the beginning of the endgame or the beginning of the end for Los Angeles' 20th-century fling with charter reform? As the days grow shorter, so does the time left to conclude the reinvention of city government. But recent events have revealed more discord than concord in the primary workplace where the new charter is being forged. Long-sought progressive changes--more City Council members, for instance--may be falling from favor. Others, like the ever-contentious elected neighborhood-council issue, are coarsening the dialogue.

Two different urban establishments have weighed in with contrarian offensives against the most public charter-reform engine: the elected commission. First, there was the threat of the Los Angeles Business Advisors to strangle in its cradle any new charter that would empower elected neighborhood councils. LABA's alternative for better representation is enlarging the size of the City Council. But the local councils remain popular with elected commissioners.

Then one of L.A.'s most entrenched and respected top officials raised his voice against the councils, the mayor's office and all proposed charter changes that would hand managerial and budgetary powers to the mayor. Chief Administrative Officer Keith B. Comrie's plaints were echoed by an amen choir of City Hall staffers.

It looked like both the bureaucratic and business elites were having at the future charter. But the key obstacle may actually be the meandering progress of the elected commission itself in putting together something responsive to the city's real problems. Has it ever sat down and defined such needs? Not really.

Instead, despite marathon weekend meetings and frequent subcommittee hearings on weekday nights, the elected commission appears, less than 12 weeks from its ballot deadline, to be foundering in repetitive argument, some of it on minutiae little connected with the perplexity of making the city run better. Stuff like: What's the governing body anyway, the council or the council and the mayor? Or whether the city attorney should handle civil litigation. As far as running the city better, these are how-many-angels-on-a-pinhead questions. One regular observer put it this way: "They almost never ask what's the problem, what needs fixing."

It's not that the commission's staff doesn't take up primary issues, sometimes exhaustively, in their reports. Part of the problem is that many of the elected-commission members are running for, or contemplating running for, office, mostly for the City Council seats of the districts they already represent on the charter panel. This means their attendance and attention to charter matters can be sporadic. It also means they are fearful of proposing a new charter that ignores or offends any interest that might otherwise support their candidacies. Such was the inescapable impression following a Saturday meeting last month. The elected commission went into the session with a consensus that the council ought to be expanded. After Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Anthony Chavez argued against such expansion, a majority of commissioners fell in line with MALDEF.

Administrative director Geoffrey Garfield insists that the elected commission is on track to complete its marathon meeting schedule by late October. Commission chair and USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky insists that 75% of his set agenda for a new charter has been completed. The commission must put together a charter proposal based on its findings to date by Dec. 18.

But anyone frequenting the commission's long meetings may wonder if the goal of a voter-friendly charter is reachable. Where, one may ask, is the long-overdue attempt at a compromise between the so-far-irreconcilable elected and appointed neighborhood-council proposals, an issue since last year?

Some rest their hopes for a better charter with the alternative commission appointed by the City Council. By comparison, its discussions are brisk and to the point and ahead of the elected panel's, only partly because it was up and running several months before the other commission was elected. The conventional wisdom, though, is that the appointed panel's most important proposals may never reach the voters, since they must first be approved by the City Council. Anything radical, so dictates this line of reasoning, is a nonstarter.

The appointed-commission faithful respond that most cities with successful charter reforms got them through their city councils. Particularly with term limits, they argue, there is no reason for present council members to hog power for the sake of unknown successors.

Probably true, but there remains an extra level of hazard in sending reforms through the council gauntlet. The consensus is that a body selected by the voters, rather than a panel selected by the representatives of those voters, has a better chance of expressing the will of the electorate. Therefore, much is riding on the elected commission. If it fumbles, the entire charter effort may stumble.

So what if its end product fails at the polls? The voters have already rejected wholesale charter reform in the 1960s and the 1970s. The city went on to be bigger and richer, regardless. What if the voters reject a revamped charter in the 1990s? What's the difference?

The difference, of course, is secession. If charter reform goes down this time, its defeat will abet those who say the city is busted beyond fixing--if it doesn't actually prove their claim. A citywide secession election might succeed, particularly if a strong Valley independence movement were bolstered by the votes of Westside and Harbor dissidents eager for their own municipalities.

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