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The Mayor Plays Hardball 

Riordan gets his charter, and it’s not pretty

Wednesday, Jan 6 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

It began with the closest thing to a consensus of elites that L.A. has seen in decades.

Old John Ferraro stepped to the mike to address Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s Elected Charter Reform Commission and urged the commissioners to approve the compromise that had been struck between committees representing the elected commission and its City Council–appointed counterpart. "The city charter belongs to Los Angeles as a whole," he said, "and as such needs a consensus behind it."

And for the next hour, it seemed that consensus — for placing a single reform proposal on next June’s city ballot rather than competing ones from each commission — was plainly at hand. Representatives of Los Angeles Business Advisors and the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the common language, even though it enshrined the living-wage ordinance in the new charter. Representatives of city-employee unions supported the common language, even though it altered a system with which they were comfortable by increasing the mayor’s power. Charter-reform doyenne Xandra Kayden, the Urban League’s John Mack, seemingly the whole damn civic establishment, testified for the compromise. Only a ragtag collection of malcontents — Valley secessionist Bobbi Fiedler, the Peace and Freedom Party’s Casey Peters, MTA critic John Walsh — spoke in opposition.

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Then Richard Riordan spoke — and cast his lot with the malcontents. The mayor told the commissioners to scuttle the compromise and stick with their own recommendations. Never mind that Eli Broad and Warren Christopher had privately implored Riordan to support the unified proposal. The self-proclaimed "business mayor" had become a traitor to his class.

The sticking point was the question of whether the mayor should be given the right to fire city department heads outright, a procedure supported by Riordan and codified in the elected commission’s proposed charter, or whether the sacked bureaucrats could overturn the firing by a two-thirds vote of the City Council — the process that the compromise charter established. Not the kind of issue that you’d think would compel anyone to stand at Armageddon and battle for the Lord. But stand and battle Riordan did, and by eve ning’s end he had prevailed.

At one level, this was a dispute over the kind of city Los Angeles should be. In most large American cities, Riordan argues, mayors routinely have the right to fire department heads. But in cities in the Western states, Riordan’s opponents reply, such mayoral discretion is almost unheard-of — though whether this testifies to Western progressivism or just Western provincialism is not at all clear.

At a second level, though, this was a dispute over the best way to get charter reform enacted. The elite consensus is that the key to voter approval is, well, elite consensus — more particularly, that voters are more likely to approve a single proposal placed on the ballot by both commissions than to approve one of two competing proposals. This consensus is rather persuasively disputed, however, by Bill Carrick, a normally Democratic political consultant who in a fit of right-deviationism has hooked up with the mayor. There was an elite consensus behind the last charter-reform proposal, Carrick notes, which voters defeated in a low-turnout election in 1971. "At a standard June runoff turnout [which may well be as low as 10 percent], you’ll get what happened in the ’70s: The voters in the lowest-turnout elections are skeptical of change and tend to vote ‘No’ on principle." The only way to overcome that, Carrick continued, is with a multimillion-dollar campaign of the kind Riordan will fund for the elected commission’s proposal — even if that means the city employee unions fund a rival multimillion-dollar campaign for the appointed commission’s proposal. "If compromise prevails, they’ve given birth to an orphan. Who puts the energy [i.e., the funding] behind it? The Times endorses it, and it dies."

To which Erwin Chemerinsky, the USC law professor who chairs the elected commission and who headed its compromise-negotiation team, replies that a high-voltage campaign between rival charters could turn into L.A.’s worst nightmare. "We’re a terribly divided city, racially, socially, geographically," he told his fellow commissioners. "This would only divide us more."

And if the campaign that Riordan waged against the compromise among the elected commissioners themselves is any indication of what’s about to befall the city, Chemerinsky is understating it.

Supporters of the compromise thought they had 10 votes on the 15-member elected commission — but after Riordan finished his talk, and as one after another member spoke, it became apparent that the mayor’s position might prevail.

Then it was Richard Macias’ turn to speak. Macias was a relatively new member, appointed by Riordan to take the place of Gloria Romero, who’d been elected to the Assembly last November. In a halting voice, Macias said he supported the mayor’s right to discharge department heads, but that, like Chemerinsky, he feared "a negative, destructive campaign" if a compromise wasn’t reached. He glanced at the mayor and continued: "We’ve been told we’re the independent charter commission," he said. "Unfortunately, a number of us have also been told that our jobs are at risk, that our future in this city is at risk. But I have to vote in the best interests of the city."

Indeed, people close to the lobbying process reported that Macias, an attorney with a Pasadena law firm, had felt some job pressure himself. So just before the meeting, I called Riordan consigliere Bill Wardlaw, who happens to be a friend of the managing partner at Macias’ firm, and asked him if he’d spoken to his friend about Macias’ upcoming vote. "I never talk about private conversations," Wardlaw answered.

A few minutes after Macias finished speaking, Commissioner Chet Widom moved to kill the compromise. Seven hands went up, then an eighth, meaning Widom’s motion had passed. Only then did Macias also raise his hand: no sense running who-knows-what risk for a compromise that had already lost.

Meeting the press just after the vote, Riordan was asked about the threats. "I’ve heard a little about it," the mayor said, "and I’ve been in politics too long to take it seriously."

But half an hour later, when the meeting had ended and Riordan bumped into Macias in the lobby (about three feet from where I happened to be standing), he conveyed a different message. "I respect what you said," the mayor told Macias, shaking his hand. "I’m sorry if things got a little out of hand."

I only hope that at the end of his campaign for what is now his own charter proposal, the mayor will not be compelled to make the same apology to the city.

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