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Chartered Out

The absentee landlord of this place

where I used to live had his own way of settling disputes among us tenants. He’d listen very carefully to you asserting your right to keep a bicycle on your shared veranda. Then he’d tell you he’d think about it. A day or two later, you and the other disputant would each receive a copy of a little paperback book.

The book was called Getting to Yes. It was about how to negotiate without getting mad. My landlord must have had a crate of these books. I’m not sure I was that obstre-perous a tenant, but I think I ended up with two or three copies.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a single one recently to send to our city-charter reformers — when "Yes" just didn’t seem to be what they were getting to. Instead of negotiation, there was posturing. And almost everyone was getting mad.

In case you’ve forgotten, for some time now a pair of panels have been trying to rewrite the cumbersome city charter, the document that governs our fair city. One panel is called the Appointed Charter Reform Commission because City Council members appointed it. The other panel is the Elected Charter Reform Commission, whose members owe their jobs to a citywide election pushed for by the mayor. (At the council level, City Councilman Mike Feuer deserves credit for first getting the ball rolling on charter reform.)

Toward the end of last year, the two commissions still could not agree on a proposed charter to put to the voters, largely because of interference from the Mayor’s Office.

Then, suddenly, the panels did arrive at the affirmative. As of this writing, all the key standing differences that erupted — the elected commission’s rejection of a December compromise, the mayor’s demand for more powers — have been smoothed away. The last of them, it must be said, were smoothed away in an unusually acrimonious meeting Monday night of the Elected Charter Reform Commission, some of whose dissident members called the current compromise a sellout.

Regardless, what made this compromise suddenly possible was the reversal of Mayor Dick Riordan’s obstructive insistence on giving future mayors the power to fire top city managers at will. In return for the mayor’s concession, the appointed commission agreed to support mayoral authority to fire members of the city’s numerous citizen commissions.

Some insiders thought the mayor had, in fact, pulled a fast one on the appointed panel, because giving the mayor power to fire commissioners without council interference came close to also giving him his coveted authority to fire city managers. Some top managers, you see, serve at the pleasure of the appointed commissioners. These commissioners, who could be tossed out at will by the mayor, would be far more obedient when the mayor asked them to dump department managers under their jurisdiction.

The skeptics may have something there. In fact, the state’s strongest mayor is in San Francisco, where all the commissioners serve solely at the pleasure of Mayor Willie Brown. Just as those of Dick Riordan’s successors will serve L.A.’s mayor.

The compromise charter also included an agreement to deep-six the single most radical proposal — elected neighborhood councils with decision-making powers. This plank was dropped even in its last, marginal form — as a separate amendment on which voters could pass judgment. That omission hurt a lot of people, including, for some reason, many who originally weren’t gushing about giving their neighbors a direct say in local affairs, such as how parcels of land will be used for development or homeless shelters. Their problem was that, without innovative local democracy, the new charter felt a lot less radical.

"It’s bland," said one charter-watcher friend.

"They took the easy road," said a City Hall official uninvolved in the charter process.

But as of now, the proposal for local minilegislatures is on indefinite hold.

That little book I mentioned at the

start tells of the importance of finding out what’s acceptable to both parties. Certainly the chairs of the respective commissions — George Kieffer of the appointed, Erwin Chemerinsky of the elected — understand this principle.

My old landlord, a wonderful screenwriter named Jerry Ziegman, would probably have been pleased. I name him because, although his guiding hand stirred the broth of many interesting television series since he created Peyton Place, he somehow didn’t rate an L.A. Times obit when he died in Omaha last year.

Jerry’s favorite book made it clear, of course, that no one gets it all their way on the road to "Yes." As Chemerinsky recalls it, "I really liked the idea of elected neighborhood councils as a separate" amendment, a proposal also strongly favored by a narrow majority of his fellow members on the elected commission. "But George [Kieffer] was adamantly against it." His own commission’s closely divided stance wasn’t solid enough for Chemerinsky to push the matter. He still hopes to see the neighborhood-council proposal go before voters in a subsequent election.

So what’s left? And what’s really new in the new charter? Well, lots of things — some form of appointed or locally selected neighborhood council for each City Council district; planning authorities scattered all over the city, instead of concentrated downtown. (The current, centralized arrange-ment remains one of the major grievances of San Fernando Valley cityhood folk.) A chance to expand the City Council to as many as 25 members (via a citywide ballot measure in four months). And centralized city finances.

Nothing there worth selling the screen rights to, perhaps, but the kind of improvements that the city needs. Badly.

Neighborhood Councils Redux?

I doubt that we’ve heard the last of

the elected-neighborhood-council idea. Its die-hard adherents have avowed that it was a grassroots concept central to the entire idea of a new charter. They are perhaps forgetting that the concept was, as I recall, introduced in its full splendor by Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg in 1997, and that Goldberg subsequently dropped it late last year. As, more quietly, did the bloc of city unions who’d also initially supported it.

There was indeed some inner skullduggery in the establishment retreat from the idea of little local legislatures. The entire concept, however, was analogous to the distant hill the faraway hiker tells himself he’ll climb — only to discover on approach that it’s a soaring peak. As noted above, there are mammoth implementation problems to such a proposal, and it’s thus no wonder that no other city, anywhere in the world, seems to have tried the idea. Had the charter forces actually managed to resolve the obvious problems — of equal representation among all local groups, of appropriate limits to power — over the past two years, it’s hard to see how they would have had time to do anything else. These charter reformers were never equipped to grapple successfully with this.

But if elected local councils are really something the majority of Los Angeles citizens desire, it should be easy to develop a petition movement to put elected local councils before the voters in the near future. If not, well, someone sure has been shooting a lot of bull.


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