Charter Change 

NEXT TUESDAY, L.A. VOTERS WILL BE ASKED TO ADOPT a new city charter -- to toss out a document that has served as the city's constitution since 1925. The proposal is the joint handiwork of two commissions -- one elected, one appointed -- which have been working on it for the past two years. To give our readers a variety of viewpoints on the merits of the new charter, the Weekly convened a roundtable discussion between the new charter's two primary authors and two of its leading critics. Speaking in favor are Erwin Chemerinsky, professor of constitutional law at USC and the chairman of the Elected Charter Reform Commission, and George Kieffer, a partner at the law firm of Manatt, Phelps and the chairman of the Appointed Charter Reform Commission. Speaking against are Ruth Galanter, City Council member from the 6th District (Venice, Westchester, Crenshaw) and Jackie Goldberg, City Council member from the 13th District (Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park). What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


L.A. WEEKLY: Let's start by talking about the proposed charter generally. Councilwomen Galanter and Goldberg oppose it. And you gentlemen support it. I'd like you to talk first about your reasons for that support or opposition.

RUTH GALANTER: The proposed charter, it seems to me, is the result of a bunch of backroom deals. Unfortunately, after two years of work by two separate commissions -- most of which was pretty much out in the open -- a whole lot of negotiations took place, generally superintended by the mayor, in an effort to put something on the ballot and to avoid having two competing proposals. The result of those last-minute negotiations is a charter that will do the opposite of what its proponents claim it will do. It will actually reduce accountability. It will make most of the elected officials more remote from the neighborhoods than they are today, and it will make it more difficult for members of the community who have a problem with whatever is decided under this structure to actually get it changed.

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GEORGE KIEFFER: I want to just remind everyone where we began on this process. The voters overwhelmingly passed a provision calling for the creation of an elected commission -- not my commission; the one I chaired had previously been appointed by the council -- to review the charter and to recommend a new charter. The voters passed this overwhelmingly.

So you had two commissions working simultaneously, and 95 percent of what the two commissions came up with was in agreement. We came down to some fundamental disagreements, about 5 percent. We compromised on that remaining 5 percent. Thirty-two of a total of 35 commissioners supported what we did. It's endorsed by the mayor, the city attorney, the controller, the fire chief, certain council members, the Chamber of Commerce. It has broad support -- the Civic Coalition, the League of Women Voters, the Urban League and others have supported this charter.

Now, I would also caution everyone, this is neither what Dick Riordan, when he didn't get everything he wanted, called "just changing the deck chairs on the Titanic," nor is it the radical reform that Jackie and Ruth talk about. It will not turn government upside down. When this process began, we had the most powerful city council of any big city in America. And after charter reform it will remain the most powerful big-city council in America.

WEEKLY: So what would the new charter change?

ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: We started with three goals. We wanted a charter that would enhance accountability in government, a charter that would increase efficiency, a charter that would lead to a more responsive government.

With regard to accountability, one of the things that I'm most proud of in the charter is the way in which we strengthened the role of the Police Department's inspector general. The Christopher Commission said that one of the key reforms that they were proposing was the inspector general. Now, the office hasn't functioned the way it was supposed to. The inspector general was told she could only report to the executive director of the Police Commission. She only had access to aggregate data, not to individual case files, and the commission had control of investigations. The new charter says that the inspector general reports directly to the Police Commission, has full access to all information, can initiate investigations, and if he or she is fired, the City Council can overturn it.

And there are other examples of accountability. A lot of newspapers, including the Weekly, reported on a possible debt crisis in city government. Under the current charter, no one has the obligation to monitor the level of city debt. The new charter says that the city controller has to regularly monitor city debt, and issue reports before any new indebtedness can be undertaken by the city. You have to do debt-impact statements that assess what this would mean in the context of the overall indebtedness of the city.

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