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The Grand Finale? 

The City Council lines up behind the new charter — but that doesn’t mean it has to like it

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Comrie had an interesting role in the charter endgame. City CAO since the early ’80s, he had been disempowered by the Riordan administration when, early on, it grabbed most of his budgetary responsibilities. Over the past year, Comrie appeared to be clinging to his increasingly symbolic city job simply to ensure — without any detectable official capacity to do so — that the city would get a charter that he might find acceptable.

But Comrie was by no means a disinterested observer in the charter wars. Last fall, he pounced on Dick Riordan’s plan to grab important charter powers for the mayor. After a vigorous war of op-eds and memoranda, Riordan finally settled for minimal changes. It was Comrie’s victory and Comrie’s revenge. And now his job is finished, along with the unified document itself.

Despite Comrie’s cue, though, a number of Los Angeles City Council members still didn’t get it last Friday. This was the day the council finally got to paw over the final draft, and the occasion was nobody’s garden tea party.

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The principal problem was that a noisy council rump decided it hadn’t had enough say in the process. To hear the by-no-means-taci-turn Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg speak, for instance, you might have thought the whole package had been furtively brewed up in some mayoral star chamber. "I don’t know anything about this . . . Why haven’t we heard anything about this?" she said, again and again, as the morning session stretched toward midafternoon. It seemed to me that Goldberg had hung around those endless charter meetings frequently enough — more often than most other members — to have noticed most of the details that she impaled last week in the course of her inquisition. (Several of her friends noted that her intemperate disposition might have been inflected by her ongoing recovery from recent and painful back surgery.)

Whatever the reason, too much time was consumed by Goldberg’s antics. And those of many other members. After four hours of general grousing, the council recessed until Tuesday, when, after another two hours–plus of general grousing, they voted to put the charter on the ballot by 13-0.

This, many hastened to add, did not mean they all approved of it. Members as various as Mike Hernandez and Rudy Svorinich said they’d campaign against it in June. Svorinich added that he opposed the charter as much because of the low turnout expected in that month’s voting, "when most people will be there to vote for school-board runoffs," as for any other reason.

Other members, such as Hal Bernson, had developed fresh charter qualms simply because they’d only recently tumbled on how it might disempower them. Bernson would see his own potent Planning and Land Use Management Committee have its powers distributed among new local planning agencies. This change must have taken Bernson by surprise, since he reportedly attended a charter hearing only once, last year, in order to propose that the city "revert to an appointed city attorney" — though L.A. has never appointed its city attorney.

What was not openly aired in any of the council members’ deliberations was the reason they were going to pass the charter: that even if they’d rather this charter didn’t go to the voters, they knew that a far more threatening document could take its place on the ballot. For if the council killed this consensus text, the Elected Charter Reform Commission would go back into session to replace it. And create for the voters a far less council-friendly charter that would contain every measure thwarted by the council-appointed charter commission. This rogue charter would also be a document for which no council approval whatsoever would be needed.

So, despite the blitzkrieg of words from a minority of the council, the unified-charter mongers had the council over a barrel. They could endure the council dissenters’ cant and insults, because they knew that, in the end, this council would not dare to kill or even seriously change the unified charter — if only because such an action would put on the ballot a charter that had the imprint of council critics and even of extremists such as Valley secessionist Paula Boland, a former state Assembly member who sits on the Elected Charter Reform Commission. A charter that — despite (or because of) its creation of more mayoral powers and even elected neighborhood councils — would certainly pass. If only due to the general voter outrage that would certainly follow a council sabotage of the document it took dozens of hard-working people two agonizing years to create, with the encouragement of the thousands of citizens who gave their input to the project, and which cost the city several million dollars to fund.

Working-Class Hero, Sometimes

 

Federal and AFL-CIO officials called it the biggest union drive since 1937, the year General Motors workers joined the CIO’s United Auto Workers after the historic Michigan sit-down strikes. And Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was there to help celebrate the Service Employees Union’s landslide vote that officially organized the 74,000 Los Angeles County workers who care for the elderly and disabled. And to receive the union’s effusive plaudits, for it was Yaroslavsky who successfully prodded his supervisorial colleagues back in 1997 to create the county agency with which the union could collectively bargain.

The final tally — 16,250 votes in favor of unionizing and 1,925 against — was one of the largest such votes in years. No wonder the generally pro-labor Democrat with mayoral aspirations was on hand.

Unfortunately, in the eyes of some labor supporters, Zev was also at the MTA meeting the very same day, where he helped to otherwise dispose of another unionization issue in a somewhat different way. Yaroslavsky was one of the board majority that voted against recognizing a new MTA supervisors’ unit of the American Federation of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Very interestingly, our Republican Mayor Dick Riordan voted to recognize the new unit.

AFSCME organizers had gathered the "card checkoffs" of 74 percent of the 500 employees in the unit. Traditionally, a "card check" majority of employees automatically leads to an election. But it’s become recent union policy to try to organize employees on card checks alone: The reason usually given is that management can and often will pay millions to outside anti-union experts in order to derail such an election.

Yaroslavsky was swift to dismiss the possibility of the MTA’s pulling such a move on AFSCME. "That’s not going to happen here; I’d support the employees if they were being harassed. This isn’t some right-wing corporation in Peoria," he said. He added, though, that he deeply wants the MTA workers to have an election, not just be recognized by virtue of their having signed cards.

But a three-quarters majority of all targeted employees clearly wants AFSCME representation. So why bother?

Responded Yaroslavsky, "Why are they so frightened of an election? [It’s] the fairest way to go." He observed that the entire card-check campaign was organized on the promise of an election.

The supervisor, who to the best of my knowledge has never been a union member, compared the union card-check organizing process to the petition-gathering phase in a typical municipal election. "This is like a black-and-white issue to me. This is no different than [signing] a petition for a candidate and still having the right later to vote against [that] candidate."

Yaroslavsky also noted that his office got some calls from MTA employees who said that they also wanted to see the AFSCME organizing effort go to a full election. "They were outraged" at the card-check approval prospect, he added.

Regardless of his rationale for it, Yaroslavsky’s MTA "nay" vote may cost him some friends in the camp of organized labor: These are friends he can’t have too many of if he squares off against Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and City Attorney James Hahn — both blatantly pro-labor candidates — in the 2001 mayor’s race. (Villaraigosa also showed up to receive plaudits at the home-care workers’ rally last Friday.) As one vexed AFSCME member put it last week, "Zev screwed us but good." The member said that the issue was increased expense and time to a hard-pressed union, as well as the risk to the organizing effort so far.

Other observers, more charitably, attributed Zev’s attitude to his innocence regarding the usual hardball techniques of modern labor organization. Certainly, the common labor-election-certification procedures are quite different from — and generally far more onerous than — primary and general elections in most U.S. jurisdictions. As former AFL-CIO organizing director Richard Bensinger noted in 1996, "If the National Labor Relations Board’s procedures were applied to national elections, George Bush would still be president."

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