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Shaw’s Ghost 

Riordan at odds with panel and history

Wednesday, Dec 23 1998
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He’s not on the membership lists, and, possibly because he’s dead, he’s been a no-show at meetings. Yet by now it is fairly obvious that the shade of former Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw is one of the determining forces on both of the current Los Angeles charter-reform commissions.

Shaw’s been particularly influential when it comes to the central conflict over the thorny proposal to give the mayor the sole power to remove city managers: The commissions’ joint conference committee last week recommended that such mayoral decisions be subject to reversal by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

Meanwhile, the living mayor, Dick Riordan, is vowing to combat any charter proposals that do not grant the mayor unrestricted manager-firing power. Although the new charter wouldn’t kick in until after he leaves office, Riordan is hell-bent to deny any City Council oversight on hiring and firing top managers.

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Shaw and Riordan would have agreed completely on this particular issue. In fact, Shaw, who was ousted in disgrace in 1938, was notorious for his appointments and firings of managers. Frank Shaw so abused his ability to fire — and appoint — managers (including the century’s most corrupt LAPD chief) that he remains the most reviled mayor in Los Angeles history. As well as the only one ever to be recalled by popular vote. After which the voters gave the managers protection from the mayor.

Hence, members of both of the charter commissions, respectively the elected and the appointed, are cagey about restoring such powers to the office of mayor. They are deathly scared of the ghost of Frank Shaw. The current mayor responds by enumerating the many other cities that grant the mayor such powers, but his opponents answer, "None of those cities are in California." (In his official November message, the mayor did include San Francisco in his list, but it turns out that city’s managers can only be ousted by commission vote.) When it comes to official corruption, opponents of mayoral authority over managers aren’t just saying, "It could happen here." They are saying that it already has. And Riordan is actually asking for more power than Shaw had over such managerial appointments.

Neither side can claim to be solely in the right. There is nothing nonsensical in Rior dan’s November 16 memo to the Elected Charter Commission (although the mayor’s comparison of general managers to presidential Cabinet members comes close); he points out correctly that "Mayoral authority to remove general managers without council approval is a tried and true practice in virtually every American city." Nor is there anything egregiously illogical in City Council President John Ferraro’s subsequent memo in response, which proposed that "Council involvement in removing a general manager adds to the accountability the mayor is seeking." (In fact, the Ferraro riposte may have been too logical — elected-commission staff members allegedly failed to pass it along to members. Ferraro staffers claim that they had to distribute it themselves.) There is logic on both sides of the basic argument.

But it’s the mayor who is ignoring both local history and the consequent widespread resistance to his proposed change. More importantly, the mayor himself refuses to make any concessions. Even toward that joint-committee compromise.

Few agree with Riordan that the manager issue is more important than all the other new charter proposals, such as a 25-member City Council and a new Department of Finance. But mayoral insiders say that Rior dan is inexplicably passionate on this issue: "He’s got a bee in his bonnet on this," said one close ally, adding, "He’s willing to die trying." Some suggest that the mayor, having initiated charter reform nearly three years ago in a bid to strike at City Council power, can’t let it succeed without a concrete manifestation of that original impetus.

But this obsession has already alienated the mayor from much of his original downtown support: The Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles Business Administrators are among the organizations that have asked the mayor to back off on this one. Other business avatars are marveling at the sight of the mayor allying himself with Big Labor by promoting a charter living-wage provision in return for support for his general-managers firing-authority plank. Business hates the living wage, and the mayor once actually vetoed it. But then, what does labor have to lose by supporting Riordan’s fixation?

Now that the joint committee, which includes members of both panels, has approved the two-thirds compromise, the battleground here is in the elected commission. That panel is deeply divided on this issue, but its chair, Erwin Chemerinsky, favors putting a single, unified charter proposal, backed by both the elected and appointed commissions, before the voters in June. He believes that a consensus proposal is much likelier to get voter approval. Riordan, however, is lobbying the elected panelists to see things his way. Supposing they do, the voters who do show up in June’s election will face two distinct proposals. And may support neither.

Then, of course, it’s slippery-slope time in old Los Angeles. Urban secessionists will contend that the dysfunctional city is also unfixable. They will have a point. Some voter demographic data put before the joint committee suggest that the further we go into the next millennium, the more successful any secession bid might be. It’s also apparent that there’s an earlier, irremediable factor disposing the city to separation: That’s Dick Riordan’s original clammy reluctance to stand against secession. As I make it out, after the movement kicked in in 1996, it took nearly 18 months before our city’s controversy-evasive chief executive actually objected to the efforts to sunder the city he was sworn to serve.

Riordan’s past and present positions leave the city much at risk. Remember Mayor Shaw? He disgraced his position by being far too political a city executive. Maybe Riordan will leave his mark by not having been political enough. But the two could go down in history together: Shaw as the man who brought Los Angeles to its all-time nadir of corruption, and Riordan as the mayor who, by his ill-timed indifference and bullheadedness, let the city blow apart.

The Joint End Game

Rather heroically, apparently in the face of the above-noted pending mayoral opposition, the joint commission’s last proceedings, on December 21, picked up speed and consensus. In less than four hours, the majority of panel members agreed to increase the independence of the police inspector general, to nestle the city’s living-wage provisions into the charter, to give both the mayor and the council more authority in the pursuit of city civil litigation, and to offer the voters a choice between the present 15-member council and one of 25 members.

"It went pretty fast, almost too fast," said elected-commission member Bennett Kayser, who had seen his own proposal for a charter domestic-partners provision fall by the wayside.

The charter story isn’t over by any means. That same day, the mayor said he’d back a subsequent elected-commission proposal, with the clear implication that the proposal he had in mind did not include the two-thirds council compromise on managerial firing. The joint-committee proposal now goes back to the elected and appointed commissions for further discussion and possible further amendment. Clearly, Riordan has at least the one amendment in mind. (Several joint members said they understood the mayor wasn’t too happy with their city-litigation proposal either.) If the elected members listen to Rior dan, we could still have a two-charter election in June.

But largely due to the immense and prolonged efforts of the joint chairs — George Kieffer of the appointed commission and Erwin Chemerinsky of the elected panel — there now exists a compromise charter that could, conceivably, go on the ballot in June, all by itself and as is.

What will be the mayor’s next step? Kieffer said, mildly, "My main hope is that he will study [our proposal] and focus on the basic issues." But at this point you don’t see the mayor bending a bit. His intransigence, should it result in a two-charter ballot, would at least leave us with a historical imprint of Riordan’s character: He breathed life into charter reform on a whim, and on a whim he killed it.

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