Op-Ed: 10 ideas for fixing Los Angeles

Photo illustration of downtown Los Angeles with machinery under the skyline
(Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

As scandal-plagued and inept as Los Angeles city government has been, reforms usually face entrenched, powerful opposition. Maybe this moment is different. With new leadership coming to City Hall, The Times asked civic leaders for ideas on how to make L.A. government better able to solve problems. Their responses focused heavily on establishing accountability, untangling bureaucratic lines of authority and fighting racism and poverty.

Let the unwealthy participate in politics

When I ran for City Council in 2020 against seasoned politician Mark Ridley-Thomas, I learned that money’s influence in our local politics runs deeper than I had thought. As an incumbent L.A. County supervisor, he had an unending stream of funds to reach voters. Meanwhile, I campaigned door to door.

I struggled to raise money while my opponent raised nearly $900,000, mostly from wealthy contributors, out-of-state donors and powerful special interests. If you scroll through the fundraising statements of many L.A. politicians, you’ll see page after page of $800 donations — the legal maximum a donor can give to an individual candidate in a City Council election. These donors are wealthier and less diverse than the general population in Los Angeles, and their voices are disproportionately loud when our City Council makes decisions.

But who from District 10, filled chiefly with working-class people of color, could contribute to a political campaign when the average resident earns $47,000 a year? Most people can’t afford to donate anything, much less $800. All Angelenos deserve a voice in city policy but often are left out of the conversation.


Democracy “vouchers” are one solution to this problem. Used in Seattle since 2017, every city resident gets four vouchers worth $25 each to donate to local candidates. The result is a donor pool more diverse by race, income and age and the city’s most diverse mayoral field ever.

In Los Angeles, advocates want to create a similar program. This would be a game-changer for grassroots campaigns. With democracy vouchers, we can begin to build an open and equitable campaign finance system that represents all our residents, not just wealthy donors and special interests.

Aura Vasquez is a former candidate for City Council, consultant and community organizer.


Abolish the City Council

Resignations and reform won’t fix the City Council. We should abolish it instead.

The council has never worked well — it’s little more than a machine for corruption and incompetence. And L.A. doesn’t need it. Because Angelenos can do the job themselves.

There’s a model for this, called the citizens assembly. A citizens assembly consists of everyday people who are chosen by lottery. Los Angeles could design the lottery process to select a group of Angelenos that is representative of the city by race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, class, neighborhood and just about any other factor we like. Members of this lottery-selected assembly would serve two years — and then be replaced by another lottery.

L.A. would be an American pioneer in this, but not a global one. Paris just established a permanent citizens assembly; a Belgian province also has one. Countries from Japan to Ireland have created such bodies after breakdowns in trust in public officials, to address issues from abortion to climate change.

With a citizens assembly, the games stop. There will be no redistricting process because there will be no districts. There should be no racist conflict over council elections, because there won’t be any council elections. Transparent public meetings replace backroom discussions. And more people can participate — the assembly should have at least 200 members. This should happen fast. Good government groups should file a charter amendment now to abolish the City Council and establish a citizens assembly.


Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. A longer version of this article appears here: “Los Angeles Doesn’t Need a City Council.”


Create an independent inspector general for City Hall

Immediately after being sworn into office, L.A.’s next mayor should convene a meeting of his or her staff, appointees and department general managers — the top leadership in City Hall — and, in front of the assembled media, say:

“The people of Los Angeles have spoken. They’re sick and tired of the corruption, the racism, the selfishness, the winner-take-all attitude and the acceptance of mediocrity that plague City Hall. Starting today, the buck stops here. I’m not saying that everybody is corrupt, but we need a fundamental change in culture. The ‘pay-to-play’ system that has led to the departure of three council members and a deputy mayor must stop. If you learn about misconduct or unethical behavior in government, I expect you to tell me, even if it involves a friend, political ally or donor. Don’t put me in the position of having to say that nobody told me about the latest transgression.”

The new mayor should continue: “A mayor has a lot of power. But a mayor doesn’t have an all-seeing eye into all the offices, corridors, corners, and cubbyholes at 200 North Spring Street. We need to put a better system in place to ensure that officials who betray the public trust will be caught and punished. Consequently, I am asking Council President Paul Krekorian to convene a special ad hoc committee of the City Council to draft a charter amendment to clean up City Hall corruption. The first step is to empower an independent inspector general to investigate misconduct. To be truly independent — to inspire fear — the inspector general will need an adequate budget and legal authority so the office is not reliant upon the good graces of the mayor and the City Council.”

Michael Woo was a member of the Los Angeles City Council from 1985 to 1993.


Appoint a homelessness czar

The balkanized governments of Southern California are a barrier to decisive and effective policymaking. Nowhere is this more obvious than in government’s failure to address our homelessness crisis. Los Angeles County is responsible for delivery of human services, such as health and mental health. The city of Los Angeles has authority over land use and where to site supportive housing. And the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, known as LAHSA, is a separate, independent government entity created jointly by the city and the county that annually receives tens of millions of dollars to serve the homeless. It has been widely criticized for failing to meet its goals.


This governance structure seems like it’s designed not to govern.

The unhoused don’t have time to wait for a complete overhaul of this broken system. We need a workaround. The city and county should appoint a homelessness czar who would be vested with authority to make decisions on where to site homeless housing, where to spend the billions in homeless funding now flowing into this region and to cut through the thicket of bureaucracies that too often slows or prevents progress. LAHSA’s structure should be overhauled. Its new board should include the mayor, the chair of the Board of Supervisors, and the governor or his representative. The czar should be accountable to them.

There is a template for such a position. In 1995, the Board of Supervisors, faced with a healthcare crisis that threatened to bankrupt the county, unanimously voted to appoint former Assemblyman Burt Margolin to quarterback the recovery. The board ceded to him broad authority to negotiate a plan with federal, state and county authorities that ultimately ended the crisis.

This moment calls for the same urgency. The creation of a homelessness czar would be a departure from the norm, but a radical departure is what we need.

Zev Yaroslavsky, who has served on the L.A. City Council and the county Board of Supervisors, is director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.


Show real leadership, for a change

It is very regrettable that the mayor and members of the City Council do not get off the fundraising campaign trail after they are elected. Everyone knows the power of money in reelecting candidates, but we forget about its influence after the campaign is over. The reason we haven’t addressed so many challenging city issues is because even after the election, we’re still catering to special interests. Issues like homelessness, affordable housing, crime and public safety go by the wayside if they’re not feeding the council members’ campaign coffers.


The mayor must bring collaborative leadership to the council and put bold initiatives before the council members. Those initiatives must be strategic, well planned and be addressed together with community leadership. Mayor Tom Bradley provided collaborative leadership, but many of our subsequent mayors have not.

Roundtable discussions should be held between the mayor and the council where all sides discuss short-term goals and long-term solutions. The community needs to join in this effort, and the press needs to explore creative ways to communicate to the public how our council members are voting and where the special interest money is going.

We need to step away from the “not in my backyard” mindset. The go-along, get-along informal policy where council members give one another almost total leeway to make decisions within their own districts must stop. We are one city, and a bad decision in a council member’s district hurts the well-being of the entire city.

We also need our mayor to ensure that special interests are not getting special privileges from our department heads. Homelessness, lack of affordable housing and crime are destroying our city. But we have an opportunity to make real reforms with a new mayor and new council members, if they will only step up to the challenge.

Gloria Molina is a former L.A. city councilwoman and a former member of the county Board of Supervisors.


Invest more in BIPOC communities


It’s been 30 years since the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, which resulted in 63 deaths and $1 billion in property damage, 40% of it to Korean businesses. More recently, with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, a false narrative emerged that these are predominately being committed by Blacks against Asians. But law enforcement data show that is simply not true.

To reduce tensions, the city must make long-term, substantial investments in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) neighborhoods and businesses, particularly in heavily diverse and lower income areas. BIPOC small businesses in neighborhoods like South L.A. and Koreatown need funding to recover after the pandemic. We desperately need affordable housing for Asian Pacific Islander and other communities of color. Soon, L.A. will have the opportunity to apply for millions of dollars in federal grants under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Let’s tap into those dollars but prioritize investments in marginalized communities.

In city redistricting, my organization drew maps to protect the interests of Asian Pacific Islander communities, but we were always mindful that other communities of color not be disenfranchised. In Koreatown, our nonprofit coalition mobilized Korean, Bangladeshi and Latinx residents to help draw a unified map. That map showed the City Council redistricting commission that we’d captured the true diversity of Koreatown. In state redistricting, we met regularly with diverse community-based organizations and exchanged maps so we could be careful not to dilute one another’s voting power. The city should institutionalize such best practices.

Investing in BIPOC communities is urgent and critical for the city’s public safety and economic growth.

Connie Chung Joe is chief executive officer of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California.


L.A. needs an elected public advocate

Every vote taken, motion introduced or word spoken by a Los Angeles City Council member is made with an assessment of how it might draw the ire of the council president, who has the power to yank members from cherished committees or never schedule votes on their essential items.


Just as money wields a silencing power at City Hall, so does the council president. We can change this dynamic and offer a true voice for the people by amending the City Charter to create an elected office of public advocate.

In New York City, the public advocate is elected by city voters at large, serves as a good-government watchdog and is a nonvoting member of the City Council. The public advocate carries out investigations, issues reports and assists with the delivery of services. The office would be a place to turn for those who find their councilmember or a city department unresponsive.

The position would also act as a check on the mayor and council president, who rarely challenge each other but quietly hash out any differences behind the scenes, and publicly project the image of a “happy family.”

While a public advocate can’t vote on council matters, he or she could introduce and second motions and speak on matters before the council. A public advocate would add a citywide voice to the council, someone looking at the bigger picture beyond the confines of individual district fiefdoms. The council president would still have enormous power. But if healthy dissent were to become a norm at City Hall, the council president would have to adjust to it.

We certainly need more members on our City Council, but we also need a different kind of member, one with a mandate to hold those in power accountable.

Rob Quan is the lead organizer with Unrig LA.


Spend less to police the unhoused

Pervasive poverty lies at the heart of many of our city’s challenges. Policies that criminalize and penalize poverty only exacerbate it at the root.


Last year, for example, the L.A. City Council passed Ordinance 41.18 making it illegal to “sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or other public way.” This year the ordinance was expanded with so many stipulations that unhoused people have been left with nearly no reasonable place to sleep, outside of county and municipal jails. There are over 69,000 unhoused individuals in our county, and we are 10,000 beds short of providing them a temporary dignified place to sleep each night, let alone a permanent one. Funds allocated to police the unhoused population under this ordinance and others would be better used increasing affordable housing, improving supportive service delivery, and addressing the root causes of becoming houseless.

L.A. County has about 600,000 low-income renters living one paycheck away from eviction. That’s not sustainable. As the cost of living in our city continues to rise, our newly elected leaders need to take an intentional role in ensuring that every Angeleno has the opportunity to reasonably meet those costs. We have to invest in the alleviation of poverty’s root causes, keep people who are struggling to make ends meet from losing their homes, and use our civic resources to bring more opportunity to Angelenos.

Isaac Bryan represents Culver City and parts of West and South L.A. in the California Assembly.


End diffuse leadership and finger-pointing

Angelenos have made it clear that ending homelessness is their top priority, and over the years they have invested an unprecedented amount of money in an effort to house their unhoused neighbors. But the region suffers from fragmented systems, misaligned plans and diverging ideologies.

Now, with new leadership coming to City Hall and the county Board of Supervisors, we have an opportunity to hit the reset button. No one mayor or county supervisor can solve the issue alone.

What we need is a functioning, outcome-driven response system at the scale of the problem, not diffused leadership and finger-pointing. Any credible solution to homelessness needs to have clear data, specific goals and greater transparency. Most of all, moving forward requires clarity of roles and thoughtful coordination between the city and county governments and the region’s many on-the-ground service providers.


The good thing is that while reducing homelessness is a considerable undertaking, it is not an insurmountable problem. Other communities, like Houston in partnership with Harris County, have figured this out, and so can we. The goal should be to create one unified, countywide governing structure that will be accountable to all and which will benefit from the voices of those who have experienced homelessness.

Miguel A. Santana, L.A.’s former city administrative officer, is president and chief executive of the Weingart Foundation.


Prepare for the ‘perfect storm’ ahead

In the months and years ahead, city leaders must focus on the driving forces that lead L.A.’s residents into homelessness, including the convergence of racism, gender-based exploitation and consistently low wages during inflation.

The COVID-19-era eviction protection measures and emergency shelter efforts worked to curb the cascading flow of those entering homelessness during the pandemic. But L.A. cannot rest on this slight pause in the deluge. Unfortunately, a perfect storm of everlasting racism, inflation, undervalued and under-compensated work primarily performed by women and the upcoming lifting of the so-called eviction moratorium is coming.

In particular, Black, Latinx and Asian women who were primary caregivers for their housed family members or were paid under the table for cleaning their houses or caring for their children are increasingly becoming the most vulnerable to becoming and staying unhoused. While many seniors rely on Social Security to pay rent, older women of color who worked their entire lives and whose bodies often suffer the ravages of that hard, back-bending labor will have no income as they age.


Now, more Angelenos are being forced to leave our city in search of affordable housing, leaving family members behind who now have no one to turn to for a few nights or weeks of shelter. In the future, city departments must be forced to work together and to lessen the red tape that inhibits the development of affordable housing.

During the cold, stormy rain after Christmas 2021, I tried to convince a 76-year-old Black woman sheltering in a Koreatown bus stop to accept a five-day motel stay. She refused, saying she’d been there, done that, had all of her possessions stolen, was transported far away from familiar services and lost contact with those she hoped would find her permanent housing. She said she was tired of sheltering. She stayed in the cold rain, waiting for her permanent housing or death to come. I certainly hope it was the first.

Chancela Al-Mansour is executive director of the Housing Rights Center.