Is Hahn Prepared to Govern the New Los Angeles?

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir." His forthcoming book, in collaboration with photographer Marissa Roth, is "Real City: Downtown Los Angeles Inside/Out."

There is a genuinely new governmental apparatus under construction in Los Angeles within the splintered body of the old one. But neither mayoral candidate this election year seemed to understand fully that he was campaigning to be the chief executive of a city that neither of them--and none of us--had ever known.

Two years ago, L.A. voters didn't just shore up the city's 1925 charter--a relic from an age of anxiety about everything in the city that wasn't Protestant and white--they fundamentally changed the city's political economy by giving the mayor significantly greater ability to accumulate power, the individual council members significantly less and neighborhood advisory councils and area planning commissions a still unknown share.

Much of what is now possible in the city charter to make Los Angeles more coherent and accountable remains "a sleeping power," to use the phrase of Raphael Sonenshein, an advisor to the appointed charter commission. Mayor Richard Riordan roused one potent new power with a slap to the city commissions as soon as the first elements of the charter went into effect in 2000, mainly to fire some commissioners who were early supporters of Mayor-elect James K. Hahn. That seemed to confirm the anxieties of charter opponents on the City Council who were sure that reform would merely make the mayor strong and the council weak. But it hasn't turned out precisely that way.

Last year, when it had to muster veto-proof support for the consent decree to rid the Los Angeles Police Department of corruption, the council made Riordan and Chief Bernard C. Parks accept outside control of the department they were loathe to let in, thereby paving the way to reform. The new charter, it is generally agreed, enabled this novel exercise of political leverage. City policy was never made like this in the old Los Angeles, where a back-room deal among the council's three or four more powerful members, with the connivance of the mayor, would have been the way things were done.

But is Hahn the prince who is prepared to awaken the rest of the charter's sleeping powers with a kiss? Given the part that secession-minded voters played in his victory, Hahn's 20 years of careful (some say plodding) acquisition of insider knowledge of City Hall power--including its careful balancing of African American resentment, Westside presumption and law-and-order Valley fear--seems useful now only to render Los Angeles even more ungovernable. What's wanted in the new mayor is the ability to project himself imaginatively into the undiscovered country he now governs. By all accounts, Hahn is a passable manager with the spirit of a cautious reformer who hasn't shown much ability to lead by making the intangible qualities of city government real to its L.A. residents.

Meanwhile, post-election conventional wisdom assumes that the future of Los Angeles will be governed by a single variable: Latino demographics. The city's Latino majority is remaking Los Angeles culturally as the northernmost capital of the tropics, but that did not change the machinery of its government. A fairly boring civics lesson in 1999 did. Angelenos, with a certain amount of skepticism, imagined a Los Angeles that might be something other than an assemblage of 19th-and 20th-century political contrivances stuck together by real estate sales pitches. Whether it will be a whole Los Angeles four years from now or one fragmented by secession depends on the ability of Hahn, the city controller and the eight new members of the City Council to get the gears of city government turning. Here are the tools they have to work with:

* To the mayor, new power, tempered by the need for council assent, to hire and fire city department heads and dismiss city commissioners. Because department heads no longer have Civil Service protection, this change makes them fully accountable to the mayor for the first time.

* To the City Council, new power, its full extent yet unknown, to change the operations of local government though ordinance, not by the cumbersome route of charter amendment.

* To the city controller, new authority to conduct independent audits at every level of city government, including the "big three" operating departments--airports, the harbor, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power--and even the Police Department and the mayor's office.

What the charter takes away is the blurring of legislative and executive authority in the City Council. During the 18 years that the late John Ferraro was its president, the council had devolved into 15 "mini-mayors" mostly micro-managing daily district matters, because it was always easier to grind a department head to fix a constituent's pothole and easier to deal with a lobbyist to fix a developer's concerns than legislate a citywide policy either for potholes or growth.

Drawing clear lines of executive and legislative authority and giving the mayor and council greater freedom to act within them, watched by a kind of inspector general in the controller's office, are the way big cities should work. What distinguishes Los Angeles is the balance the charter seeks between centralizing authority at City Hall and dispersing it outward in the form of neighborhood advisory councils and area planning commissions. The charter directs routine planning decisions to the commissions, whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, and places the final appeal from area commission decisions in the hands of the city Planning Commission, not the council. That should depoliticize routine planning matters, which has been the source of endless complaints by business owners and developers. (The boundaries of the commissions are not the same as council districts, and that alone will restrain the power of council members.)

The neighborhood councils--there may be 160 of them eventually--are the new charter's human face to replace the dead mask of technocracy that has marred Los Angeles for the past 74 years. The new Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) and the seven-member Board of Neighborhood Commissioners are leaving the organization of the councils appropriately unregimented, an honest reflection of the city's extreme heterogeneity. Although the neighborhood councils are only advisory, they can be more than "spit and argue" clubs for airing local grievances. The councils will be given, in advance of City Council action, the kind of detailed budgetary and economic-development information that ordinary Los Angeles residents have never had. They will be educated how to read these documents and interpret what they mean. They will have unprecedented access to City Hall through the staff of the neighborhood-empowerment department and the neighborhood board commissioners. They should work to form regional coalitions with the area planning commissions, other neighborhood councils and existing homeowner associations. They could be schools for the next generation of elected city officials who will replace the current lot by 2010. The new commissioners may even learn sufficient cunning to defeat the crowd of lobbyists who still make too many of the policy decisions downtown.

It had become conventional wisdom long before election day to regard Hahn as the representative of the "old" politics of the city--meaning the pre-riot/pre-recession coalition of black churchmen, Jewish community leaders and downtown business interests first assembled by Tom Bradley in 1973--and to see Antonio Villaraigosa as symbolizing the "new" Los Angeles politics. Given the degree of change in the way city government will be conducted after July 1, this old-vs.-new dichotomy is too shortsighted to offer much direction for governing Los Angeles.

Hahn should consider what advice he takes from the memory of his father, the legendary Kenneth Hahn. Supervisor Hahn was beloved by that generation of black leaders for whom the gesture of a lone white elected official welcoming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Los Angeles, as Hahn did in 1961, still resonates with the heroic strength of a well-remembered passage from the Bible. At preelection rallies in neighborhoods his father once represented, James Hahn was frequently misnamed Kenny by his supporters, without embarrassment or irony. But Kenny Hahn saw the exercise of power as the filling of one pothole at a time. James Hahn needs his father's brave gestures more than his father's genial reliability to keep this fractured city from flying apart.

It would be better if Hahn walked around the corner from his San Pedro home to his sister's house. Janice Hahn is the new council member representing the 15th district, but she won her first election in 1997 as the harbor-area representative to the Charter Reform Commission, where she focused on the formation of the new neighborhood councils.

Janice may be the only winning Hahn who has seen the territory ahead.

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