Showdown Votes Loom in Charter Reform Process


When Los Angeles looks back on its attempt to revamp the city’s aging charter, the first week of the last year of the 1900s will stand as a defining moment.

As of today, three different proposals are vying for the support of two citizen commissions; by the time the week ends, at least one and possibly two will have landed in history’s ash heap.

The city’s elected charter commission will convene Tuesday to cast the most important votes in its 18-month history. Wednesday, the appointed commission will follow.


In the meantime, the city’s top officials and their allies are waging a furious contest to put their imprint on the documents. The stakes are high. If approved by the voters, one of the proposed charters could end up governing the nation’s second-largest city through the coming decades, a period in which many observers believe Los Angeles could emerge as one of the world’s dominant metropolises or descend into ethnic rivalries and be torn apart by a series of secessionist campaigns.

At issue are three visions of the city’s government: the relatively modest reforms advanced by the city’s appointed charter reform commission; the more far-reaching, some say reckless, set of recommendations by the elected panel; and a so-called “unified” proposal that represents the best effort to compromise between the two commissions and produce a single document.

The compromise proposal already has won the endorsement of the elected and appointed commission chairmen, Erwin Chemerinsky and George Kieffer. The leading city workers union also backs it. In fact, the union commissioned a poll, the results of which suggest potentially significant opposition to one provision of the elected commission’s charter--a section that would allow the city’s mayor the power to fire department heads without the City Council’s approval.

But Mayor Richard Riordan, who believes that authority is essential to effective government and notes that most big-city mayors already have it, opposes the compromise that would water down the elected panel’s proposed charter. He is joined by some business groups and San Fernando Valley leaders.

Though they differ on key issues, the three proposals have much in common.

All three drafts would add to the mayor’s power, though the elected commission goes significantly further than the others in that regard. All three endorse a system of neighborhood councils, though the appointed commission and the compromise package leave the types of councils vague, while the elected commission would allow voters a choice between community boards with mostly advisory powers and elected panels that could directly oversee some services.

Size of Council Is Key Issue

The appointed package would enlarge the City Council, whose members presently represent the largest council districts in the nation, while the other two would keep the council at 15 members unless voters agreed to boost it to 25.


Under various proposals, planning and development would proceed differently, elected officials might find themselves subjected to easier recall campaigns, control of city lawsuits might shift from the council to the mayor and the council might lose the right to draw the boundaries of its members’ districts, a power that stands at the heart of the city’s challenge to accommodate the dizzying ethnic diversity anticipated in the coming century.

“Charter reform has the potential to remake government in Los Angeles,” said Chemerinsky. “As we’ve gotten immersed in the details of this, we’ve tended to forget how much this can accomplish. . . . I think there’s an enormous promise.”

Whether it is fulfilled--and in what form--will depend largely on what happens this week, particularly Tuesday, when the elected commission will cast its votes. At that meeting, 15 commissioners will be asked whether to stick with the charter they have written or drop it in favor of a compromise with the panel’s appointed counterpart. A simple majority will decide the question.

If they approve the compromise, chances are that the elected commissioners will be joined by the appointed commission on Wednesday and the City Council in the coming weeks. That would leave voters with just one charter to consider on the June ballot.

If they reject compromise, the elected commission would push forward with its proposal--placing it on the June ballot--and the appointed with its. Chances are the council would vote to give voters the option of approving the appointed charter, and thus the campaign would begin, one that would pit Riordan and his allies against the City Council and its friends.

The arguments made for and against compromise are partly philosophical and partly practical: Most of the elected commissioners prefer their own reform package but worry that running two measures might doom both and force Los Angeles to enter the 21st century with a charter written near the beginning of the 20th.


Riordan’s call to the elected commission is to honor its mandate.

Voters elected 13 of the 15 commissioners--two others resigned the panel and were replaced by Riordan appointees--and the mayor has urged the members to vote their consciences and let the politics take care of itself. That message seems to have struck home with several of the commissioners. Chet Widom, the vice chairman of the commission, said he believes the elected commission’s charter is better than the compromise, and he is inclined to reject the unified proposal.

Likewise, Bennett Kayser, who often opposes the Riordan administration, nevertheless says he, too, is inclined to reject the compromise unless some provision can be added on the controversial question of neighborhood councils.

“I want to vote for the charter that I’m proud of,” Kayser said. “And I will not vote for a charter that does not include elected neighborhood councils,” a position not included in the compromise package.

While Kayser’s position is little influenced by Riordan’s arguments, other commission members are more inclined to side with the mayor, for reasons that are both political and ideological. Commissioner Woody Fleming would like Riordan’s support when he runs for the City Council, as he plans to do in 2001. So would Commissioner Nick Pacheco, who has announced his intention to run for the seat held by embattled Councilman Richard Alatorre.

Commissioners Widom, Bill Weinberger and Rob Glushon have generally endorsed Riordan’s view that the mayor needs the authority to fire department heads without the council intervening, making them inclined to side with him on the overall package, but not necessarily committed to that position. Commissioner Paula Boland is the panel’s most conservative member, and she respects Riordan.

Meanwhile, five members of the commission have reservations about the proposed compromise because of its language on neighborhood councils. Kayser, Boland, Janice Hahn, Marcos Castaneda and Dennis Zine all favor elected councils with decision-making powers, and the compromise package would preclude those. As a result, all or some of those five may vote against the compromise unless some deal can be worked out to let voters consider creating such councils.


Finally, for those trying to tally potential votes against the compromise, are the two Riordan appointees. Since both were recently named to the panel, most observers believe that Richard Macias and Ken Lombard will heed Riordan and vote to reject the unified charter. But they have been coy about announcing their intentions publicly, so their positions are impossible to gauge for sure.

One thing is certain: Both are being heavily lobbied. On Wednesday, while most of the city enjoyed a week off between the holidays, Macias had lunch with Riordan’s best friend, lawyer Bill Wardlaw.

Vote Is Too Close to Call

What that all adds up to is a vote too close to call.

“It’s going to be very close,” Chemerinsky said last week. “I just can’t make a prediction right now.”

In part, that’s because Riordan has not been lobbying in a vacuum. City workers, under the leadership of Julie Butcher, general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 347, have announced their support for the compromise, largely because Butcher vehemently opposes giving the city’s mayor the power to fire department heads without council approval.

Butcher is a force to be reckoned with in the charter debate because she is a skilled organizer who can turn her union members out to meetings and, when the time comes, at polling places. Bolstering her case, Butcher and her union commissioned a poll. Conducted by the firm of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin and Associates, the survey analyzed the responses of 600 people who said they vote in city elections either some of the time, most of the time or all of the time.

According to the poll, 64% of those interviewed said the mayor should not be allowed to fire a department head without council backing. Two-thirds of those questioned also said they would support a compromise between the commissions that would allow the mayor to fire a general manager but also permit the department head to appeal to the City Council, which could overturn the mayor by a two-thirds vote. The survey did not include a margin of error.


The survey could weigh on some commissioners as they consider the political ramifications of trying to sell their proposal to voters. Late last week, City Atty. James Hahn cited that task in endorsing the compromise.

Perhaps most important of all for the prospects of a unified charter is Chemerinsky’s endorsement. A law school professor who specializes in constitutional law, Chemerinsky commands enormous respect among the elected commissioners. He also enjoys the rare distinction of being admired both by Riordan and by Riordan’s critics. As a result, Chemerinsky’s role in the final deliberations cannot be overstated.

“I believe the best way for us to win approval of a new city charter is to present voters with a unified proposal,” he said. “If we can reach compromise, I believe the charter will be approved. If we cannot and we offer two options, I believe charter reform will fail.”

The elected commission meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Chemerinsky has asked his colleagues to stay that night as long as it takes, pledging that when they finally break, they will have a plan for charter reform.


3 Charter Proposals

Appointed Commission


4 Give the mayor the power to issue executive orders concerning the operation of city departments;

4 Put the mayor in charge of most city litigation;

4 Expand the council from 15 to 21 members;

4 Create a city Office of Neighborhood Empowerment and a system of self-selected neighborhood councils;


4 Allow the mayor to hire city department heads subject to council confirmation and to fire them only with council approval;

4 Retain the City Administrative Office as independent authority on budget and fiscal matters, reporting to both council and mayor;

4 Leave the current election and recall system largely unchanged;

4 Create a system of Area Planning Commissions to decentralize planning and



Council President John Ferraro, City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie.


Elected Commission


4 Allow the mayor the power to hire city general managers, subject to council confirmation, but to fire them without restriction;

4 Give the mayor the power to issue executive orders;

4 Put the mayor in charge of city litigation;

4 Give voters the option of keeping a 15-member council or expanding it to 25;

4 Give voters the option of creating self-selected advisory neighborhood councils, or elected councils with some decision-making powers but no land-use authority;

4 Abolish the City Administrative Office, replace with a Budget Office reporting to the mayor;

4 Reduce the number of signatures required to run for City Council, make it easier to recall elected officials;


4 Create a system of Area Planning Commissions, nearly identical to the one recommended by the appointed commission.


Mayor Richard Riordan, City Councilman Joel Wachs, Valley Industry and Commerce Assn.


Compromise ‘Unified’ Charter


4 Allow the mayor the power to hire general managers, subject to council confirmation, and to fire them with the condition that any fired general managers could appeal to the council, which could override with a two-thirds vote;

4 Put the mayor in charge of most city litigation;

4 Give the mayor the power to issue executive orders and to represent the city in intergovernmental relations;

4 Leave the size of the council at 15, but allow voters, through a separate measure, to expand it to 25;

4 Create a City Budget Office under the mayor to prepare the budget, but keep an Office of Research and Administrative Services that would report to mayor and council;

4 On matters relating to elections and recalls, maintain status quo;

4 Create Area Planning Commissions, with minor changes between the recommendations of the two commissions.



Building Industry Assn. of Southern California, Greater L.A./Ventura Chapter; Service Employees International Union, Local 347 (city workers); Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; former City Councilman Marvin Braude.