After the Fall

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

So what happens now? The Los Angeles City Council’s firm majority stood firm to the last against the passage of the new city charter. Now the members of that same majority get to be the ones who implement it. What a great idea.

But nothing here is quite that simple — except, perhaps, the voting majority’s desire to see its city run better. Which resulted last week in the overwhelming passage of a large and complex new blueprint for city government. And in the sore-loser "the mayor’s money won" stances of most of the termed-out council hacks who had opposed it.

The charter’s victory was a double act of electoral faith: First, the voters believed the new document would improve a city government long gone in bureaucratic decay. Then, implicitly, they believed the current city government would promptly install the new system.

It already looks as if the voters were probably more right in the first instance than in the second. The big question remains whether that council majority wants to see the new charter put into action. Last week, council President John Ferraro announced he would form a special City Council committee to create the necessary ordinances. It was a feel-good announcement, all right. But I’d have a lot more confidence in Ferraro’s sincerity if he hadn’t — to the tune of $110,000 — become the anti-charter campaign’s biggest single backer.

Meanwhile, the pro-charter council minority has just been augmented by the election of two new council members: Nick Pacheco from the 14th District and Alex Padilla from the 7th. Their presence brings to seven (out of 15) the number of council members in favor of the new document: The others are Joel Wachs, Mike Feuer, Cindy Miscikowski, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Laura Chick.

But that’s still a minority. The majority still rules. Not that the council couldn’t go through the motions of charter renewal without making a real change: There’s a lot of easy stuff to be done, what with exiling tons of the present charter’s legal boilerplate into flexible city ordinances. You could actually do most of this automatically with a law office’s well-programmed PC.

But you have to ask yourself, what interest do the members of the council’s ruling octet have in going beyond that to make the spirit of the new charter come to life within the next year?

Probably none. Their single main argument against the new charter was that it would transfer power from the council to the mayor. Why then should they waste their remaining years in office by proving or disproving their theory?

After all, it took the council more than two years just to get around to implementing the city ethics ordinances of 1990 — and these were "plug and play" laws, rigorously codified before they even went to the voters. It would be sheerest fantasy to imagine that an entire new charter, with all its vagueness and last-minute consensual language, could be put into effect in less time — even if the lawmakers wanted this to happen. The most we can expect from them is a running start.

But meanwhile, old laws are good laws. I’d guess that, without major efforts, we won’t see this charter in full effect until we have a new mayor and a new council majority, two years from today. Even then, it might take a court order to blast away the long-constipated legislative peristalsis. For years to come, the city may well stay stuck with most of its old charter.

But it’s interesting to see who’s out there making the contrary assumption. Mayor Dick Riordan, in his post-election victory message, spoke of the new charter as having instantly banished lobbyists from City Council offices. As Appointed Charter Commission chair George Kieffer explained to KNX over the weekend, however, barely a single charter provision would affect council lobbying. (If it had tried to stop lobbying, the charter might never have passed, so great would have been the opposition of the almighty City Hall lobbyists.)

Meanwhile, we can only hope that some of the charter opponents on the council have smelled the coffee. Otherwise, there’s a rocky road ahead for them and us.

Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, for instance, promised that if the charter passed, as it did with 60.5 percent of her own constituents’ approval, she’d refer those constituents who sought her office’s help to the Mayor’s Office.

I hope that was a rhetorical statement, but you never really know. I’d suggest that if any constituent does get that runaround, he or she should consider instigating a Galanter recall petition. This might nudge the councilwoman and perhaps some of her anti-charter colleagues back to the original democratic idea: Elected officials should listen when the people speak — not the other way around.

The sun did shine bright on Dick Riordan last week, and how. The mayor claimed total victory at his SRO press conference Wednesday and made his usual happy promises about how great a place this city would be henceforth. His success was instantly sanctified by the Times and every other media outlet in town, thus becoming a matter of record.

All this hoopla got me seriously worried, though. As noted above, the real implementation has not commenced. And how well we know our mayor’s ephemeral attention span! What now seems the real danger is that Riordan, having declared his victory on the charter, will amble off in his lame-duck waddle to address new concerns that might not involve the city at all. And leave the new charter’s future to the tender mercies of the council’s mandibles.

There is a remedy at hand, though. It’s Controller Rick Tuttle’s proposal that members of the current charter commissions continue, on an informal basis, to oversee the work of working with Ferraro’s charter committee. The loose parallel here is with the process whereby members of the Christopher Commission have monitored the implementation of their LAPD recommendations.

As Tuttle put it, "No one else [has] the credibility and knowledge to provide the kind of report card we need on progress in implementing reforms." But this places a fiscal burden on people like Kieffer and elected-commission chair Erwin Chemerinsky, who’ve already given years of their life for this charter.

Which puts the ball squarely in the mayor’s court. What Riordan should do now is to establish and finance — with or without council approval — an independent charter-implementation commission, assembled by or, better yet, containing members of the two former charter commissions, with a small, paid research staff of its own.

This panel would, via publicity and regular reports, flog the case-hardened butts of the political oxen yoked to the charter wagon. The mayor is probably the only guy who can empower and fund such a commission. And if Dick Riordan truly wants to be remembered past next month as the Charter Mayor, that’s exactly what he must do.

Don’t Knock a Winner


This newspaper endorsed Nick Pacheco’s opponent for the 14th District council race. Personally, I could not make up my mind — nor did I have to, because, since my February move westward, I could no longer vote there.

But, in the political abstract, at least, I ended up leaning toward Pacheco over Victor Griego, despite the latter’s formidable edge in connections and experience, and my early misapprehensions about the former’s demeanor. This was partly because I began to notice that the heavily favored Griego’s suave, evasive answers to crucial local-issue questions were not necessarily any more informed than Pacheco’s occasional "I don’t really know, but I’ll try to find out."

In the end, I inclined toward Pacheco for the same reason the voters did: because he’s rooted in the district. And because Pacheco, unlike Griego, repeatedly distanced himself from his discredited and disgraced predecessor, Richard Alatorre. Now he’s won a very tough race, and I wish him a lot of luck: He’ll need it to serve a council district that includes many wonderful communities with lingering and desperate problems.


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