Hey, L.A., do you want more democracy, or less?

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently outlined 13 ideas for tackling Los Angeles’ persistent budget problem, and one of them was to split the city attorney’s office in two. The criminal side -- consisting of those lawyers who prosecute infractions and misdemeanors -- would continue to report to an elected city attorney. But the civil side, which is the part that drafts ordinances, advises city officials, files lawsuits and takes care of other such noncriminal matters, would report to an appointed lawyer. Appointed by the mayor, or by the council? Appointed to a full-time city job, or serving Los Angeles under contract while also working for other clients? There are no details at this point.

Villaraigosa said such a move could help eliminate the structural deficit, but he’s at least as interested in firing a shot across the bow of current City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, as The Times asserted in an editorial Thursday.

Bifurcating the city attorney’s office would require a citywide vote to change the city charter. An election to end elections. Back in the 1990s, then-Mayor Richard Riordan was so intent on having the city’s lawyer report directly to him that he launched a long and costly process to scrap the charter and replace it with a new document promoting a more business-like vision. But two separate charter commissions (and by the way, one was elected and one was appointed) rejected the idea of an appointed city attorney.

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Maybe the switch would save money, maybe not. The case has yet to be made.

But beyond savings, is there a reason to change? What is it about electing particular officials -- about democracy, in other words -- that serves us well? What is it about appointing them that (in some circumstances) may serve us better? Answers to those most basic questions must come before choosing which way to go.

There is something more than a little absurd about reacting to scandal or irritation by making an elected official appointed, or an appointed official elected. So we elect someone, we tire of him, and we decide his whole office shouldn’t be elected anymore? What happens when we tire of an appointed official?

In 1988, voters made the state insurance commissioner, an office that was previously appointed, into an elected position because it was widely believed the system of appointments worked far too heavily to the benefit of a powerful and entrenched insurance industry and against drivers. From now on, voters said when adopting Proposition 103, we’ll pick our own.

End of problem? Not really. After John Garamendi served one term, the second elected insurance commissioner, Charles Quackenbush, was implicated in a scandal involving use of public money to produce television commercials that featured himself. It was alleged at the time that he wanted to increase his profile as part of a plan to get reelected or advance to higher office. No charges were ever filed, but Quackenbush resigned under pressure, and in order to restore the office’s reputation, he was replaced, until the next election, by an appointee. Quackenbush himself picked a caretaker, who was then replaced by an appointee of Gov. Gray Davis. Voters appeared to believe they were restoring order when they returned Garamendi to office.

So were we better with an elected or an appointed commissioner?

Los Angeles County voters are currently grappling with a ballot measure that may be simultaneously the election’s most boring and its more interesting. Measure A asks voters whether they should give up their power to elect the county assessor and let the Board of Supervisors (presumably) appoint.

Do voters even know what an assessor does? And if not, how can they possibly be entrusted with filling the office? And likewise, how can they make wise decisions to elect Superior Court judges, or the sheriff? The political dynamic here is so different than it is in almost any other county, where the population and the geography are small enough that voters, or at least potential rivals, can keep tabs on the officials and hold them accountable for their actions. In Los Angeles County, it costs so much money to challenge an incumbent -- because there are so many voters with so little knowledge of what goes on in the assessor’s office, say, or the Sheriff’s Department or the Superior Court or even for county supervisor -- that it hardly ever happens. Aspirants to those offices wait until the incumbent retires. Or dies.

When a challenger does in fact make a serious run in Los Angeles County, it’s most often for judge. But that’s the one office in which voters should want incumbents (as long as they are competent) to be left without fear of pleasing voters and without the need to raise campaign money, make promises and generally behave like a politician. It should be easier to challenge the sheriff than a Superior Court judge.

When an assessor like John Noguez is charged with essentially selling his office in order to get elected, or a sheriff like Lee Baca demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t know, doesn’t care or doesn’t acknowledge what’s going on under his command, it is only natural to question the wisdom of letting voters choose.

But that gets us only halfway home. There are necessarily follow-up questions: Who appoints? How does the public hold those appointed officials accountable? How are we sure not to end up with an assessor or a sheriff who is not as unsatisfactory as our insurance commissioner once was?

Are we confident in the ability of the Board of Supervisors to appoint the right person? In many other counties, voters elect their auditor-controller, and that person thus has an incentive to ferret out problems and report them to the people, in much the same way the city controller does in Los Angeles. But here the supervisors appoint, and the auditor is responsible, and responsive, only to them. Would we be better off with an elected county auditor?

The board also appoints county counsel, who ostensibly represents the civic entity that is the county and by extension its people.  But when the Board of Supervisors meets in closed session, for example, in what members of the public believe is a violation of the law, the appointed counsel's job is to protect the supervisors, not the public. Is that situation so appealing in the county that we should want to adopt it in the city as well?

Without grappling with those issues, a ballot question like Measure A -- asking whether to make the elected assessor appointed -- is no question at all. It's merely a diversion from the more intelligent discussion every society needs to have about how it governs itself.


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