The Charter Reform Debate

The Los Angeles of today is the United States of tomorrow. We are a big city, a vibrant city, a rapidly changing city. We are fortunate to have the cleanest big-city government in the country. Our current charter provides a system of governing ourselves that encourages flexibility, diversity and innovation, while protecting us from corruption through a system of checks and balances. Like all democracy, it is sometimes inefficient and sometimes slow in order to allow for the resolution of disagreements and the opportunity to hear from whomever wants to be heard.

Some people now argue we must change the charter. Many people worked very hard to devise a replacement charter. While we owe them our thanks for their hard work, I believe the voters should reject the overall result. Those provisions that do merit adoption should be added to our existing charter in subsequent ballots.

Charter reform advocates say city government is in crisis because the charter is more than 70 years old. This is a completely bogus argument. The U.S. Constitution is more than 200 years old. The Magna Carta is nearly 800 years old. And what about the Torah? Should we throw them all out because they are old?

Charter reform supporters have noble goals; unfortunately, the revised charter they have proposed will have the opposite effect from what its authors intended. Specifically:

Those revising the charter claim the new document will “streamline” government. In fact, it will create a whole new bureaucracy and mandate other new expenses, which will add to the cost of government. The new charter is estimated to raise the cost of government by a minimum of nearly $5 million a year. But no money is identified to cover these costs, which means the funds will come from police and fire services, parks, libraries, tree-trimming, street repair and other municipal services.

Charter reform supporters try to “increase accountability” by focusing control in the hands of one elected official, the mayor. In fact, their proposal would decrease accountability by making it more difficult for voters to influence decision-making. It requires far more voters and much more money to influence a citywide election than a council election. The mayor is also far less visible and accessible than individual councilmembers, who face voters on a daily basis in their neighborhoods. And with term limits in place, the only opportunity “to hold the mayor accountable” would be to vote for someone else at the end of his or her first four-year term.

Although charter reform advocates say the new charter will “bring elected officials closer to the neighborhoods,” in fact, it will make officials more remote. The new charter will insert a whole new bureaucracy between elected officials and the neighborhoods. Today, all the organizations in my district quite properly feel entitled to advise me, and most of them do quite frequently. Under the new charter, a new citywide appointed commission will oversee a new department, which in turn will prepare a set of guidelines defining what kinds of groups will be “neighborhood advisory councils.” Homeowner associations, block clubs and other existing groups will have to reconstitute themselves under the bureaucrats’ rules or duplicate their efforts.

The proposed new charter will undo the will of the people by eliminating important charter provisions recently adopted by the voters. Here are two examples:

1) The Animal Services Department has, since 1993, been governed by a citizen commission. Before that, it was merely another department that reported directly to the mayor. At the request of members of a number of humane organizations, I sponsored and the voters approved a charter amendment that gave real power to what had previously been a purely advisory commission. The proposed charter will overturn that structure and, once again, cut animal protection advocates out of the picture.

2) In 1991, the voters overwhelmingly adopted a charter amendment to provide authority for the City Council to step in when commissioners of the Harbor, Airport, or Department of Water and Power made questionable decisions. The proposed new charter would remove that oversight by preventing the City Council from changing any decisions made by these commissions.

Although supporters of the proposed charter say centralizing control will improve city services, in fact, giving the mayor the unilateral right to fire any department or commissioner guarantees an end to independent professional judgment. Fearful of mayoral retribution, department heads are already reticent to tell councilmembers about shortfalls in the mayor’s budget proposals. Under the proposed charter, it would be virtually impossible for the council to work with department heads to approve a budget with enough money for street sweeping, pothole repair and animal control.

While there are some provisions in the proposed charter that do merit adoption, they can be adopted without throwing out the protections we now enjoy. In fact, the supporters of the new charter are already pushing amendments such as increasing the size of the city council.

In conclusion, if you want to maintain clean government with its checks and balances, and you don’t want to reduce vital city services by siphoning funds to create new bureaucracies, please join the United Firefighters of Los Angeles, the Police Protective League, Service Employees International Union Local 347, Councilmembers John Ferraro, Hal Bernson, Jackie Goldberg and me in voting no on the proposed charter.

An Argument For

By Mike Feuer, Councilmember, 5th District

I support the charter reform proposal on the June 8 ballot (Charter Measure 1) because it would create advisory neighborhood councils and area planning commissions, clarify lines of authority among the mayor, council and appointed commissions, mandate performance audits of city departments and programs, strengthen the Police Department Inspector General, and provide greater flexibility for managing resources. The new charter also could improve constituent service by making council districts smaller and more manageable.

These are the kinds of changes we need, to make city government more responsive, accountable and efficient. Moreover, the charter proposal is the product of a truly democratic process that integrated the opinions and expertise of two separate reform commissions and hundreds of diverse stake holders. It represents progress, and it’s the best chance at reform we’re likely to have for a long time.

The charter is the constitution of the city of Los Angeles, establishing the powers of elected officials and the rules by which city government operates.

The present charter was drafted 74 years ago and ratified by a vote of the people. Amendments over the years have expanded the document to more than 700 pages. Many people believe that the present charter is cumbersome, confusing and out of date, and, as a result, government does not function at its best.

The city launched an effort two years ago to rewrite the charter from scratch. Two commissions, one created by the council and appointed by city officials, the other created by the mayor and elected by the people, were established to take on the job.

The process could have led to two incompatible charter proposals, dooming the chances of reform. But instead, after intense negotiation and compromise, the two commissions agreed on a unified charter.

The new charter makes government more responsive, in part, by creating advisory neighborhood councils composed of homeowners, renters, business people, educators, civic organizations, ethnic leaders and others.

Through my work with two neighborhood councils that I’ve established in the 5th Council District, I know that elected officials make better decisions when they’re informed by organized neighborhood participation. The new charter wisely leaves the details of these councils up to a seven-member citizen commission and to neighborhoods themselves.

Neighborhood land-use decisions under the new charter would be made by area planning commissions composed of local residents that would replace the present citywide Planning Commission. Both the Airport and Harbor commissions would have seats reserved on them for residents near those facilities. These changes would enhance self-governance.

The new charter also makes government more responsive by giving voters the option of expanding the size of the City Council. The present 15-member body represents 3.7 million people; today, the 5th District alone numbers more than 260,000. Residents of Los Angeles deserve closer attention from their elected officials than is possible, given those ratios. Expanding the council is a step in the right direction.

Authority under the present charter is distributed among the mayor, the council and the citizen commissions appointed by the mayor. No single entity has clear responsibility for the performance of city departments; this leads frequently to confusion and finger-pointing.

The new charter makes government more accountable by clarifying lines of responsibility and giving those in charge the tools they need to do the job. It reduces the ability of the council to interfere with commission actions, and it increases both the power of the mayor to choose general managers and of general managers to choose senior staff. It also allows the mayor temporarily to shift personnel and resources among departments.

These changes would make government better organized, more proficient and flexible, and mean there’d be no excuse if services weren’t delivered.

Those who claim that the new charter concentrates too much power in the mayor’s office, or somehow invites corruption, are ignoring some basic facts. To balance the mayor’s prerogative, the new charter retains the council’s ability to block the firing of general managers, to veto decisions by commissions, and to over-ride mayoral vetoes with a two-thirds majority. It assures the basic checks and balances that keep government honest.

There can’t be true accountability without expert, independent oversight of the bureaucracy. The new charter mandates that the controller conduct performance audits of all departments to detect waste, inefficiency or malfeasance. It also bolsters oversight of the police department by strengthening the role of the inspector general, something I fought hard to achieve during the drafting process.

In the past, the inspector general reported to the Police Commission’s executive director, thereby limiting the position’s independence. Under the new charter, the inspector general reports directly to the commission and is empowered to launch investigations without prior approval. The commission would be able to stop those investigations by a majority vote if it thought they were inappropriate or unnecessary.

Good government requires many ingredients, including leadership, consensus and adequate resources. The charter is just one of those ingredients, but a vital one, because it establishes the ground rules. City government and the services it delivers are far from perfect. Some people think the answer is to break Los Angeles into pieces. I believe, along with Mayor Richard Riordan and many others, that the answer is to improve the way government works by refining the principles that organize it.