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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.

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.

 

The charter would also give the mayor greater authority to fire general managers. If a department is not performing, there should be the ability to remove the department head and put somebody else in. In many American cities, the mayor can fire department heads unilaterally. And of course, the governor can fire department heads in Sacramento, the president can fire his Cabinet members. The new charter does not give the mayor that authority. It says that the mayor can fire department heads, but the City Council can overturn that by a two-thirds vote. This really isn't all that big a change. Now a department head can be fired with eight City Council votes. The new charter says the City Council can block the firing, but it will take 10 votes. So it's not a huge shift of power to the mayor. It's a modest increase in authority, with the goal of more accountability.

With regard to commissioners, the new charter does not change the basic mechanism for appointing commissioners or general managers. There is a change in the way in which commissioners are removed, and that is that the mayor can unilaterally remove commissioners. However, this is more a change in language than in practice. What we learned through study is, mayors have always had the authority to remove commissioners. The mayors who have wanted resignations of commissioners have always gotten them. We heard stories about mayors asking commissioners for undated resignation letters.

JACKIE GOLDBERG: Our current system is not perfect, by any means. But I've lived in other cities, and I will tell you that this is the cleanest big city in America, and it is the cleanest big city in America not because we're better people than live in other big cities, but because there are structural prohibitions against power being too concentrated. That's the problem with the new charter. It changes the balance of power.

People have tried to characterize this as me having a problem with Riordan. But Riordan is not the issue. He's a lame-duck mayor, and I'm going to be out of here, too. I worry because I care about this city.

KIEFFER: What is the specific change that you think we made that now turns this city council into a puppy dog to this mayor? I don't understand that.

GOLDBERG: I think that when you give to a mayor almost absolute control of the budget . . .

KIEFFER: That's not a change. In fact, we increased your . . .

GOLDBERG: Yes, but it's a combination of things. With the budget in the mayor's hands along with absolute authority to fire a commissioner, and with now needing a two-thirds vote to protect a general manager, you have concentrated too much power into the hands of one individual. You've now created a system in which a single person can do great mischief. And it would be very hard to stop him. It'd be very hard to stop a mayor. I don't think Riordan is corrupt, so I'm not worried about him. But a corrupt individual could easily tell a general manager who, among various contractors on a sole-source contract, should get the thing -- or else.

GALANTER: One thing I'd like to point out is that no one has ever, in my 12 years in office, called my office and said they had some problem with the charter. When people call their elected officials, it's not the system of government they're complaining about.

KIEFFER: They may not know what's in the document, but in the end, a document does make the difference in things like the balance of power or we wouldn't be arguing about it here. Now you and Jackie are both saying we shouldn't have taken on the document as a whole, that it should have been done piecemeal. But then we'd be left with an even more bloated document, and people in the year 2435 will be talking about a foot-thick document and people will be saying, "We can't review it as a whole, because no one will ever understand it."

GALANTER: I said to you from the beginning that I hoped your commission would go through the charter, find all the things that you felt were obsolete or incorrectly stated or simply inappropriate, and recommend one ballot proposition that those be removed from this charter. Then additions could be voted on separately.

KIEFFER: And I'm telling you that we -- the people you appointed, not a lot of dumb people -- decided that couldn't be done.

 

GALANTER: That's my point. We simply disagree.

KIEFFER: With all due respect, I think that you did not have the benefit of what we had to go through. If we had done what you're suggesting, you would have seen 4,000 pages of "strike out this and insert that."

WEEKLY: I'd like to get back to something Councilwoman Galanter said. How would this charter make it more difficult for the average citizen to get a problem resolved?

GALANTER: Well, in several ways. But let's start with planning decisions. Under the existing charter, if someone doesn't like what the Planning Commission does, he can appeal to the City Council. Under the new charter, there will be separate planning commissions in different parts of the city. But the appeal process is not spelled out in the charter and depends upon the council to develop an ordinance. We have no way of knowing what will be in that ordinance.

WEEKLY: What about the neighborhood councils that would be established under the new charter? Wouldn't that enhance the ability of the average citizen to be heard by the city government?

GALANTER: Today it is the case that everybody in my district feels eminently qualified to advise me. And I feel obligated to listen to them. Not necessarily agree with them, but at least listen to them, and accord them the status of advisers because they're constituents.

Under the new proposal, we will pay an additional however-many-millions it costs for a new bureaucracy. We will create a whole formal structure to mediate between the elected officials and the community, in the form of a citywide commission, like all the other citywide commissions, which will then supervise a department to oversee the councils with a general manager and a staff and offices and all those things we pay for.

So my concern is that now all the groups who aren't officially designated have found themselves with lower status. And it would be, it seems to me, inappropriate to have to say, "Sorry, fellas, instead you now have to go to a neighborhood council before you can get to your elected representative." You don't have to formally, but practically that's how it's going to work.

CHEMERINSKY: There are a number of ways in which the new charter increases responsiveness of government. I think having area planning commissions, rather than one central city planning commission, is a real improvement with regard to the planning process. And I believe strongly that there should be neighborhood councils. Under the current charter, such councils are not institutionalized. Some council districts have them, some don't. This institutionalizes a system of neighborhood councils.

I think the place where I most disagree with Ruth is where she says that this is going to lessen people going to their council member. The council member is still an elected official. The neighborhood councils aren't elected. People will still go to the elected official just as much. And if City Council members want to be re-elected, or elected to some future office, they will be every bit as responsive as they are now.

GALANTER: If you elect good council members, which one always hopes the public will do, good council members, as part of their job, set up councils of all different kinds. And because they are doing it for their own districts, they are in a better position, I believe, to figure out what best fits those particular communities. I don't think you can have a one-size-fits-all. I don't think, with the best of intentions, that either a citywide department or commission, or the designers of a charter, can ever really be in a position to move with the changing nature of our specific neighborhoods.

I have five councils in my district. Almost everybody has them, except, I think, Mr. Wachs, and maybe Mr. Ferraro. They're very useful. They are useful to the community, and they are certainly useful to me. But they are not all the same. The one in Crenshaw has a different kind of job, and a different kind of makeup, than the one in Westchester, which is different from the one in Venice, and the other two as well.

CHEMERINSKY: The charter doesn't institutionalize one way. It lets communities decide how they're going â to handle neighborhood councils. It does give protections, like notification, so they can participate in the budget process.

GALANTER: What I'm saying is that if you have council members who are good at what they're supposed to be doing --serving the public -- they will form groups to allow people to participate. It's in their self-interest to do so, as well as being the right thing. They don't really need somebody downtown to tell them how to go about it. If they do, they probably weren't qualified to get elected in the first place.

 

WEEKLY: Do neighborhood councils really make a difference?

KIEFFER: We believe they do, and the people who spoke to us about councils in other cities thought they did. We thought it was important enough that we shouldn't have to rely simply on the goodwill of a particular council member to establish neighborhood councils. The charter's guidelines are very flexible. We were very conscious of not getting into a situation of one-size-fits-all. A plan for establishing neighborhood councils will be proposed by the department to the City Council, which then can either accept, reject or modify it.

GOLDBERG: One of the problems with the neighborhood councils is that the places the charter commission looked at, as I understand it, including Portland, were smaller and more homogeneous than many of our districts. The problem is that in a neighborhood like, say, Echo Park, you have a multiclass structure, you have a multiethnic structure, you have at least three dominant languages. Right now, we have eight or nine smaller community groups that are each pretty much homogeneous. And I listen to all of them.

If they were forced into one neighborhood council, the most likely result is that those who live in the hills would be the only people who would come after about four or five meetings, because there are cultural, political, economic and language gulfs that are not going to be easily overcome. And a lot of us who have been organizing in Echo Park for a lot of years have tried to get everybody into one organization. It does not work, I can assure you. I don't disagree with the intent of neighborhood councils. In fact, I wanted the charter to go much further. I wanted people to have real power. I just don't see that this is going to work.

CHEMERINSKY: The proposed charter sets up a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment that would put together a plan for the creation of neighborhood councils. The plan then would go to the City Council. A plan for neighborhood councils would essentially allow every area of the city the option of creating a neighborhood council. It would let each neighborhood decide how it wishes to select its members. So how is the new charter better than the neighborhood councils the council people are already creating? Well, there are very specific protections for neighborhood councils that exist in the new charter, and that don't exist when council people create their own.

One is the early-warning system, which says that neighborhood councils have to be given notice of the agendas of City Council committees, City Council meetings and commission meetings, and that they have to be given them as early as is practical, so that they have the opportunity to participate in those issues that affect the neighborhood. There's no such system as it exists now.

Second, the charter says that neighborhood councils may present to the mayor and the council an annual set of priorities for the city budget with regard to their neighborhoods. Another area the charter addresses is that it charges neighborhood councils with monitoring the delivery of city services in their areas, so it's a specific group in the community that can monitor how the parks are being run or how the police are serving the community.

Finally, the charter assures funding for the system of neighborhood councils, something that doesn't exist now.

GALANTER: The early-warning system is a wonderful idea and concept. If you happen to be familiar with reading documents, like agendas, they can be very informative indeed. It is also, however, expensive. The charter does not appropriate money to pay for this, or for other neighborhood-council expenses. Presumably, somebody's going to decide what their funding needs are, and that's what the charter will require.

CHEMERINSKY: Sure. The council still controls the amount of money that goes . . .

GALANTER: The mayor.

GOLDBERG: It's the mayor's budget.

CHEMERINSKY: Let's say the mayor and the council. The mayor proposes the budget, but the council has to approve the budget. There is no guaranteed level of funding for neighborhood councils. The charter simply says that funds shall be appropriated. I don't have the sense that you do that notices to neighborhood councils will be this huge cost burden.

WEEKLY: I think skeptical voters wonder whether council members opposed to the charter are only concerned that their own power would be diluted.

GOLDBERG: Well, I understand that, but I think that's just the party line of the pro-charter side. Because the reality is that, with term limits, I'm gone in two years. Ruth's gone in four. The mayor's gone in two. This isn't about this mayor or this council.

 

GALANTER: But it is generically a problem of who people call when they want service. Today, that's the council. Last year in my office, we got over 700 calls for street services and over 500 calls for tree trimming. They don't call the Mayor's Office. And we think it's our obligation to do something when people call up and say there's a problem about the trees or the potholes. Under the proposed charter, we'll basically have to say, "Call the Mayor's Office" or "Call the department," because the department head will be working for the mayor. Now, to some extent, the department works for the mayor now, but because of the intricate system of checks and balances, it is also the case that when somebody calls my office, I can help them.

WEEKLY: But let's look at this another way. If I have some issue with passports or the INS or something, I can call my congressman, Henry Waxman. Now, those departments aren't statutorily answerable to Waxman, but the legislator usually has some ability to get things done. Why wouldn't that be the case with the city?

GALANTER: The first reason is that there will be less money to do it with, because under the new charter they'll have to spend more money administering, just administering. The second problem is that at almost any point in history, some council members are in higher favor with the mayor than others. And for reasons that may have nothing to do with my constituent's complaint, there may be a whole lot of people in line ahead of my constituent, and I will have, I think, less ability -- partly because there are fewer resources and partly because of who you have to curry favor with -- to get things done for my constituent. It's just adding another level of who's got to be beholden to whom.

GOLDBERG: Let me add one other piece to that. Unlike Waxman, who has considerable power over the budget, we already have the least power of any legislative body in America over the budget. Under our system, we have 10 days to evaluate and pass changes to the budget. If we don't change it in 10 days, it becomes law as it was written by the mayor. That's why you've seen, over the past 20 years, probably less than $30 million changed in a budget of billions.

WEEKLY: Now back to this skeptical reader, though, the one who thinks you really only care about the dilution of City Council power. Do you support making the City Council larger?

GOLDBERG: Absolutely. I think it's too small. Much too small.

GALANTER: I think it's legitimate to ask if the council's only interested in its power. But I think the same question should be asked of the mayor.

WEEKLY: What didn't make it into the charter that the mayor wanted?

KIEFFER: One example is that the mayor wanted to appoint the city attorney and not have an elected city attorney. The mayor wanted to be able to fire department heads without any review by the City Council. We took what we believed to be a compromise position, which is that the mayor may fire department heads, but that with 10 votes, the City Council can overturn a mayoral decision. We think that strikes a balance between giving the mayor enough authority to demand accountability from department heads, but also providing for a safety valve in case he fires someone for insufficient cause.

We also rejected the mayor's desire to reorganize government departments on his own. What we said was, you can place a reorganization ordinance before the council, and the council is required to act on it. They can defeat it or amend it, but they have to act.

GOLDBERG: You know, there's something else that is a very fundamental problem. The council is governed by the Brown Act. Everything that we say and do is done in public. The mayor has no such thing, because he's just one person. He can act without debate or discussion. The next five mayors may be wonderful. The sixth may take advantage of that ability to do things in secret.

CHEMERINSKY: I don't see the substantial increase in the power of the mayor. I think it's modest. And I don't see the areas where we're increasing secret government. If either of you wish to go through any of the specifics, we can talk about it. But beyond that, I'd like to briefly talk about the other values which, I think, the new charter embraces.

 

One is with regard to efficiency. Although the current charter authorizes the city administrative officer to do performance and management audits, they're just not being done. No one is obligated to do performance audits. Yet we were told that regular performance audits of city departments could save a substantial amount of money for the city. The new charter would require the controller to do them.

[City Administrative Officer] Keith Comrie was certainly not an ally of the Elected Charter Reform Commission, but Keith Comrie has said to us that he thought the new charter would, overall, create cost savings to city government. His ballot statement says the new charter may produce cost savings. The CAO estimated one-time costs of around $2 million to implement charter changes. The other cost that he identified was the cost of neighborhood councils, which are a couple of million dollars, and any other costs occur only if the voters vote for a larger City Council. But he did say that he thought that the gains in efficiency would overall outweigh those costs and could result in savings. So when Ruth says it's going to cost more money through bureaucracy, the best neutral authority either of us can point to, the CAO, specifically said that he thinks we're more likely to save money than cost money.


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