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Los Angeles’ Sins of Commission

Steven P. Erie is a professor of political science at UC San Diego and the author of "Globalizing L.A.: Trade, Infrastructure, and Regional Development."

Something seems seriously broken in Los Angeles city government.

A hallmark of Progressive-era democracy, the commission system of mayor-appointed citizens setting policy for city departments, appears corrupted by fundraising imperatives. Nowhere does the triumph of money and mayoral rule over citizen rule appear more evident than at the city’s powerful and wealthy proprietary departments -- airports, harbor and Water and Power -- that annually dispense $1 billion in contracts. Federal and local investigations raise the specter of a “pay to play” city government, in which a campaign contribution would be given to win a lucrative contract. If true, this not only corrupts the policy process but also threatens the legitimacy of L.A. government.

With roots in the city’s first home-rule charter of 1889, the commission system flourished under a 1925 revision. Five-member boards of commissioners -- appointed by the mayor, with City Council confirmation, to staggered five-year terms -- would govern city departments. With the mayoral term set at four years and the council’s at two, the longer commissioner terms served to encourage independent citizen involvement in policymaking.

Such charter framers as John Randolph Haynes believed that the appointment of “public-spirited” citizens would “enlarge the influence of the nonpolitical citizen in ... city government, and will help prevent it becoming a political, bureaucratic government.”

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Citizen rule was the norm for many years. The most notable exception came during the corrupt administration of Frank Shaw, who politicized the commission system in the 1930s. After Shaw’s recall, his successor, reform Mayor Fletcher Bowron, wiped the slate clean by requiring the current commissioners to submit resignation letters. Citizen rule was restored, albeit with limited board diversity, which reflected the city’s power structure of conservative white businessmen.

The balance started to tip away from citizen rule to money rule under Mayor Sam Yorty. Although the Department of Water and Power board appeared squeaky clean, Yorty’s harbor commissioners were said to demand “voluntary” campaign contributions from harbor tenants or their leases would not be renewed.

A key driver was the escalating costs of mayoral campaigns.

Tom Bradley, first elected mayor in 1973, cleaned the Augean stables and brought new faces to the citizen boards. He created a blue-ribbon panel, headed by former Gov. Pat Brown, to diversify the pool of commissioner applicants.

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In Bradley’s first two terms, a record number of women, minorities and liberals were appointed as commissioners, mostly to implement his policies, not to reward contributors. Many of these appointees, particularly at the police and planning commissions, asserted their independence, which sent shudders down the spine of entrenched City Hall bureaucrats.

But during Bradley’s last three terms, a growing number of commissioners became involved in fundraising, and some appeared to use their positions for personal gain. The problem was an increasingly disengaged mayor exerting little influence to curtail venal behavior in his administration. Yet, Bradley used his commissioners to rein in the once-independent proprietary departments, reputedly employing signed but undated letters of resignation from board appointees to control them.

The importance of money and mayoral power, particularly at the proprietary departments, grew during the administration of Richard Riordan. Bill Wardlaw, Riordan’s political guru, believed that raising huge amounts of money was central to achieving political power. Although Riordan’s personal wealth and that of his circle of friends gave him ready access to money, some of his commission appointments seemed to reflect payback to campaign contributors.

One notable example of this involved airport Commissioner Ted Stein. He led the fight for higher landing fees at LAX and to divert airport revenue to the city’s general fund. He was lambasted in the press for hiring Webster L. Hubbell, the former third-ranking Justice Department official, to lobby the federal government on the airport’s behalf. Soon after he was retained in August 1994, Hubbell pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion in the Whitewater investigation. The resulting controversy led Stein to resign from the airports board.

Like Bradley, Riordan concentrated on appointments to the proprietary department boards, the indispensable cash cows to balance the city budget and pay for more police.

The 2001 mating of Mayor James K. Hahn and Wardlaw, along with Stein, may mark the complete triumph of money over citizen rule at the governing commissions of the major city departments.

The tone was set during the mayoral campaign: Raising money was paramount, which caused concern even among some Hahn supporters. This was unlike the Bradley and Riordan campaigns, which had featured policy and political agendas.

After Hahn’s election, rumors circulated that fundraising potential would determine commission assignments, with the proprietary commissions at the top of the pecking order. Hahn’s campaign fundraiser, Troy Edwards, was appointed deputy mayor in charge of overseeing the contract-laden departments. Huge sums of money would be needed to scare off potential challengers to the mayor’s 2005 reelection bid. City contractors and consultants were tempting targets for campaign contributions.

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The mayor’s $9-billion LAX master plan reveals the potential policy dangers of money rule at the city’s major commissions. Savaged by critics for security, operational and financial flaws, the plan to modernize Los Angeles International Airport is being relentlessly pushed by Airport Commission President Stein and Edwards. Is that because the plan is chockablock with immense fundraising possibilities among contractors and unions? Ominously, airport commissioners are pushing for contract bidding this year.

But Hahn’s reelection bid is shadowed by the multiplying pay-to-play investigations. One proprietary department commissioner, a potent mayoral fundraiser, already has resigned; another big-time money-raising board member is reportedly under investigation; and the mayor’s liaison to the proprietary departments has been called upon to testify. Triggered late last year by the city controller’s critical audit of the airport agency’s contracting procedures, the probes now involve the district attorney’s office and U.S. attorney’s office.

There are hopeful signs that the current era of money rule may soon end. Last week, the city’s Ethics Commission recommended that commissioners be barred from fundraising, and a City Council committee urged adoption of an ordinance along the same lines. The mayor also plans to appoint a panel to review contracting practices at the proprietary departments.

Yet, these developments, albeit necessary, are only the first steps in the restoration of citizen rule. Hahn and future mayors would be wise to study previous administrations under which citizen government flourished. From Bradley, they can learn the importance of board diversity. From mayors like Bowron, they can learn the value of commissioners embodying public spiritedness and personal integrity. In this fashion, the now-broken cornerstone of L.A. government can be restored to its original, lofty democratic purpose.


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