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The undemocratic ways of the L.A. City Council

Wednesday, Feb 21 2001
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The Los Angeles City Council voted against both the letter and the spirit of the new city charter last week. The issue was whether to appoint a temporary 13th District City Council replacement, as the charter requires.

By their vote, council members declared the vacancy to be no big deal. Nor is the ACLU‘s pending federal action to force the council either to appoint a temporary incumbent or to set up a special election.

The council carefully did neither. In a measure derisive enough to confirm the most embittered Valley secessionist’s views of City Hall apathy, the council ruled that, should a certified miracle transpire, and one of the eight 13th District contenders for the open seat win the April primary outright, well, that contender can then take the seat vacated last year by now--Assembly Member Jackie Goldberg.

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Otherwise, the seat will be assumed, as per the usual script, by the winner of the runoff in June. Gee thanks. For a moment there, I wondered whether the council majority might be so in love with its diminished numbers as to try to keep the seat vacant in perpetuity.

The ACLU attorneys say they‘ll seek a court order against this outrage. This action could take a while, but it’s in the right spirit. The suit‘s named plaintiffs -- district residents who say they’re being deprived of the basic right of local representation -- are out to correct a systemic wrong. This wrong has, over the course of 15 years and on five occasions that I can think of, deprived four council districts (twice for the 1st District) of representatives for up to six months. An uncynical observer could say that well over a million Angelenos have been periodically deprived of urban representation during that span.

One could also say that, for about 20 percent of the time since 1st District Councilman Howard Finn died in office in 1986, one or another Los Angeles council district‘s up to 250,000 residents were deprived of due representation.

Obviously, there’s a tradition at work here. By now, City Hall cynics tend to think of this flouting of democracy (if they think of it at all) as just another quaint Los Angeles officeholder prerogative. If you happen to be one of the 4 million other people who live here, though, it‘s something else again.

Admittedly, part of the temp-replacement problem was that the person named to fill the vacant seat pro tem was former Goldberg staff chief Sharon Delugach. As it happens, Ms. Delugach is not beloved by all Goldberg’s former colleagues.

”But this thing is bigger than just one person,“ said Dan Tokaji, the ACLU attorney on the case. ”It‘s a fundamental right of the people.“

”The principle is as simple as no taxation without representation,“ La Opinion editorialized. Delugach’s backers recalled that resonant phrase as they waved tea bags during the initial council debate last month. They made their point, even if that particular slogan was inspired by Parliament‘s 1765 Stamp Act rather than the subsequent Tea Party.

Actually, Los Angeles imposes very little taxation on residents. Of course, there are dog licenses and business taxes, parking tickets, towing charges and library fines, plus the city’s little share of the maxed-out sales tax. But property taxes (of which the city also gets a tiny percentage) are levied by the county, and other taxes come from Sacramento or Uncle Sam. So what‘s at stake here isn’t really taxation.

But it sure is representation. Representation means having a stake in what your city does to you and for you: how and when the streets are paved and graffiti erased, how large a house you can build, what rent you pay, who the police can feel free to shoot and what constitutes jaywalking. In short, what kind of life you live, where you live.

All politics is local: Our relationship with our city is more intimate than that with our county, state or nation. After all, most governmental misdeeds we notice aren‘t committed in Washington: They come from City Hall.

So it’s baffling to see the council ignoring systemic lapses in local representation. Or is it? Some members apparently thought it would be easier to cut deals with one member less. Maybe this indifference to the larger issue is just another manifestation of the council‘s sporadic ”up yours“ attitude toward the public it serves. In any case, vanished U.S. senators get replaced instantly, but since 1966, our council vacancies have all waited until the following election, whenever that happened to be. Can this wretched tradition endure? The ACLU says no, but of course, the judge may well think that, by late February, the April election is close enough to obviate the need for a temp.

Tokaji, however, remains optimistic. He notes that this is the first time a council district has demanded justice on such an obvious issue. The ACLU lawyer says this may have to do with the 13th’s outspoken diversity: It‘s an articulate, multiethnic checkerboard of the rich, poor and middle-class; blue-collar, intellectual and artistic. The impetus for the temp-replacement movement began with unions and other progressive interest groups. But the idea now lives among district residents. Tokaji maintains that whether or not anyone gets appointed to the Goldberg seat, the council must create a mechanism to fill future vacant seats, fast. We can expect more such vacancies, La Opinion noted, as local term limits tempt more council incumbents to seek higher office well before the ends of their second, final city terms.

George Kieffer, the attorney who three years ago presided over the Appointed Charter Commission, states that the council could appoint a person to fill the vacancy ”without even passing an ordinance.“ The Rules and Elections Committee, for instance, could propose and the council place a council temp automatically, as soon as the electoral-candidate nominations closed in January. For now, it’s up to the court to make that happen. But the council could probably avoid itself a lot of time and trouble -- and spare the city serious legal costs -- by acting responsibly. And getting the thing done first.

Dissin‘ Discipline

As I write this, Richard Riordan has under 120 days left to complete the reform of the LAPD he so recently, suddenly and implausibly embarked upon by firing Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff. Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen!

But at least the mayor was able to compel LAPD Chief Bernard Parks and Police Protective League (PPL) head Mitzi Grasso to stand outside with him on a very chilly afternoon to announce certain disciplinary-procedure changes. If you happen to be a police officer, the changes sound good: No longer could the chief wing you a dire punishment for ”infractions“ -- things like unlawful detention, firing a gun accidentally and so on -- based loosely on past penalties. Instead, there would be a list of guidelines. The guidelines would specify what the priority of the infraction was, and the least and most one could be punished.

The police union has long sought this change, as have the department’s advisers -- particularly former Police Commission President Ray Fisher, who in 1998 spent months developing such guidelines, only to have Parks reject them with a self-aggrandizing 72-page memorandum. You can‘t blame Parks, in a way.

After all, if you had the power of career life or death over your employees, you probably wouldn’t want to lose it either. But even some police-abuse attorneys I‘ve spoken to agree that, absent any certainty as to how the department will treat them in the aftermath, cops sometimes walk away from touchy situations.

Considering that he could have had this reform in place three years ago, however, Riordan merits no more than the sound of one hand clapping. Grasso deserves more credit. Although she supported Chaleff’s firing (on the old-time PPL grounds that he was ”anti-cop“), she‘s embraced some newfangled (less than 40 years old, at least) ideas about civilian review.

This is interesting because, as my colleague Joe Domanick has noted in his book To Protect and To Serve, regulations isolating the LAPD from any outside oversight originated with the PPL itself, way back when future chiefs like Ed Davis and William Parker ran that organization. By now, though, LAPD rank-and-filers know they can expect better treatment from a civilian board than they’ll ever get from chiefs like Parks, what with his Leadership Starts at the Bottom theory of organizational responsibility. Anyway, now that civilian oversight has proved itself for over 200 years with the U.S. Navy and Army, maybe it‘s finally time for the LAPD to give it a try.

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