Column: A journalist’s recipe for fixing L.A.

A view of downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains from the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Baldwin Hills.
(Los Angeles Times)

Efforts to improve local government and the services it provides have come and gone over the 22 years I have covered Los Angeles for this newspaper. Some have been successful: The Christopher Commission reset the accountability systems at the LAPD, and two charter reform commissions joined forces to make important changes to local governance. Others, too numerous to mention, fizzled into insignificance.

Even the less memorable reform efforts, however, left bread crumbs to follow on the path to improvement. Since this is my last column and the end of my tenure at The Times, I thought I would gather up a few of those from over the years and offer my own thoughts on a handful of changes that might make a big difference. Most would require changes in state or local laws, and some would face formidable opposition, but here are my nominations:

End term limits for the L.A. City Council and the California Legislature. Elected officials who were popular with their constituents once held their seats for decades, building up experience and knowledge; now, with term limits in place, they’re barely seated before they start searching for the next office. That’s brought new faces but at great cost. Power has shifted from those we elect to those we don’t, to the permanent bureaucracy and to lobbyists. Problems get kicked down the road in favor of attention-grabbing short-term initiatives that may have long-term consequences.

Case in point: Why do so many public employees enjoy budget-breaking pensions? Because term-limited officials realize it is easier to promise a future benefit than to give raises now. The reckoning comes later; by then they’re gone.

Term limits locally were the work of Richard Riordan, who bankrolled the initiative and later became mayor. I asked him recently about them, and he startled me with his response: It was, he said, “the worst mistake of my life.”

Triple the size of L.A.'s City Council, to 45 members. That idea, advanced during the charter reform efforts of the 1990s, would allow members to represent smaller, more coherent areas and work for the betterment of neighborhoods. Worried about the cost? Cut council member salaries and budgets by two-thirds.

Abolish the Los Angeles school board. The recently departed John Deasy once pointed out to me that he was responsible for more students, by far, than any other American superintendent who reported to a board. The parochial interests of board members — and the limited sources of money to fund their campaigns — do not mesh well with the expertise needed to run quality schools. Two mayors, Riordan and Antonio Villaraigosa, spilled much political blood trying to devise a better system for overseeing schools. They came up short, but they were right.

Move from an elected to an appointed sheriff. The most profound transformation of any agency I have witnessed was the LAPD’s. It took three chiefs — Bernard C. Parks, William J. Bratton and Charlie Beck — to make that happen. The Sheriff’s Department, headed by an elected official, has been contrastingly slow to evolve.


That’s not a coincidence. The chiefs had to answer to demanding bosses, while the sheriffs responded to indifferent voters. Newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell has great potential, but the job would better serve the people if it were professional, not political.

Rethink the role of the county supervisors in relation to their employees. Here’s how county government works: A critical story appears in the press; the supervisors drag one of their agency heads to a board meeting and flog him (or her); the department head slinks home; the supervisors move on to the next crisis. The result: Skilled managers don’t want to work for Los Angeles County. Who can blame them?

Consolidate services for abused and neglected children. Yet another blue-ribbon commission recently recommended this, and the supervisors are working on it. Children in the system desperately need coordinated help, but they don’t get it. Instead, one agency might be responsible for mental health, another for the child’s schooling and yet another for housing. The solution to complex problems isn’t always consolidation, but in this case, it could make services simpler to access and easier to coordinate.

Contain the influence of United Teachers Los Angeles. Teachers deserve respect, not to mention salary and benefits commensurate with the vital work they do. UTLA exists to advocate for those interests. Instead, however, the union likes to throw its weight around on education reform questions. Unions play an important role in protecting the livelihoods of their members, but they don’t represent children, and they shouldn’t be permitted to set policy.

Require instant, online disclosure of all political contributions, as well as the sources of money behind political action committees. Money distorts politics. That’s historical and inescapable, but the consequences locally are profound: In one recent election, more money was spent on independent expenditures for a candidate than the candidate raised himself. That’s a broken system. Disclosure doesn’t prevent corruption, but at least it allows for corruption to be recognized.

That’s it for me. I will miss this column and its readership, but I hope I’ve started some arguments and helped settle some others.

Here’s to a government worthy of its people.

Twitter: @newton_jim

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