By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
LOS ANGELES MUNICIPAL MEASURES
Charter Measure 1 -- Yes
This is the biggie on this June's ballot. Measure 1 asks Angelenos to scrap their current city charter -- the city's constitution, adopted in 1924, amended 400 times since, running some 700 pages -- in favor of a new one drafted over the past year by two separate commissions, one elected, one appointed, who merged their efforts into a single document that's a mere 142 pages long.
Let us stipulate at the outset: The vast majority of what is right and what is wrong about L.A.'s civic life -- its government, its politics, its economy, its culture, its schools, its parks, and so on -- has strikingly little to do with the city's charter. The state of our schools depends on fiscal policies set in Sacramento and pedagogical policies set by a school board that is outside the structure of city government. Smog and sprawl are regional issues beyond the scope of the city's powers; the buses that ferry the city's poor, not always in comfort or on time, from home to work and back are controlled by an independent MTA. Public health and welfare are the county's charge, not the city's. Police and fire services, parks, libraries and streets are city functions, though none will be fundamentally altered by rewriting the city charter.
And yet, the charter matters. It matters in questions of how clear the lines of accountability in government actually are. It matters in questions of how democratically and efficiently the government operates. It matters in questions of neighborhood control of development. It matters in questions of independent civilian authority over the LAPD, always a huge issue in Los Angeles. And in all these questions, we find the new charter an improvement -- usually small, sometimes large -- over the old.
The new charter is in no way a radical reconfiguring of the old. Indeed, it is notable for what it leaves unchanged: L.A.'s unusual system of interposing commissions between the mayor and city department heads is left fundamentally unaltered. The council's power to overturn a departmental policy -- not a feature of many city governments -- is left fundamentally unaltered. An independently elected city attorney -- again, an unusual feature for city government and a powerful check-and-balance against mayoral power -- is left utterly unaltered. The two-term limit (of five years each) on the police chief stays in place; public-financing provisions for elections stay in place. The city's ridiculous election calendar -- primaries in April, runoffs in June, of odd-numbered years -- is left in place, presumably for fear that merging city elections with state and federal elections would mean that even fewer people would pay attention to them, though with the current level of voter turnout in city elections hovering near single digits, this is a mathematical impossibility.
Much of what the new charter does is totally noncontroversial. It eliminates many archaic and unintelligible clauses that even the City Attorney's Office can no longer understand. It removes wholly arbitrary requirements: The existing charter, for instance, requires that the City Council have 15 committees with three members each. The new charter lets the council determine how many committees, with how many members, it needs to do its business.
But some of changes in the new charter are highly controversial, at least within the tight little world of City Hall. The subjects of this controversy are several substantial but far-from-earthshaking changes in the balance of power between the council and the mayor. The existing charter, written in 1924 by a mix of transplanted Midwestern provincials and crusading California progressives, favored not just a system of checks and balances but a fragmentation of power unusual for a major American city. The standard American division of power between the legislative and executive branches was blurred, so that the mayor's administrative control over city departments was partly shared with the council. In the current charter, the mayor's ability to discharge a department head, for instance, is countered by the council's ability to overturn the firing by a majority vote.
The new charter changes the existing balance -- modestly. Under its terms, the mayor can fire a department head, and the council can still overturn it -- but it will require a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. The mayor is also given the power to fire his or her part-time commissioners (except police and ethics commissioners) without council review of that action. The mayor is also given the power to appoint the city's lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington, a power currently and mysteriously vested in the chief legislative analyst. Meanwhile, the council's Proposition 5 power to overturn a departmental policy remains largely intact. As we see it, these changes will result in clearer accountability for departmental policy and performance, while the city will still maintain a considerable body of checks and balances.
Some council members see these changes, however, as destabilizing the Delicate Balance of the Known Universe. Constituents come to them, they assert, when they need their streets paved and their trees trimmed, and the agencies respond more swiftly because the council has more control over them than most legislative bodies do over administrative agencies. If this argument were true, however, Los Angeles would have markedly better city services than virtually any major American city, since this quasi-administrative council capacity is peculiar to L.A. To put it gently, we do not think this is the case.