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Our Choices in the June 8 L.A. City Elections

Certain endorsements are accompanied by this logo, which denotes that our choice is a lesser evil or one of life's gloomier compromises.

MEMBER, LOS ANGELES CITY COUNCIL

District No. 7 -- Corinne Sánchez

Alex Padilla, just 26, has something that any young candidate would die for: the unified support of the L.A. labor movement. With that, he was almost able to win this race outright in the April primary, falling just short of 50 percent of the vote in his bid to fill the seat vacated by Richard Alarcón, who's gone on to the greater glory of the state Senate. An MIT graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, Padilla returned to the district to manage successful field campaigns for Alarcón and for Assembly members Tony Cardenas and Gil Cedillo. It's no disgrace, in one's mid-20s, to have spent one's entire career as a campaign techie, but neither is it an adequate apprenticeship for the City Council. There's no contesting Padilla's fundamental decency or his commitment to working people and union causes -- but his understandably brief résumé and his issue positions, or lack thereof, suggest he's not yet ready for prime time.

Attorney Corinne Sánchez, who got just enough votes in the primary to push Padilla into a runoff, combines the best of a movement past (she's been endorsed by the United Farm Workers) and an activist present. For over 20 years, she's been president of El Proyecto del Barrio, a community clinic that is widely respected for offering some of the best general health-care, drug-rehabilitation and AIDS programs in L.A. She'd bring to the council a healthy skepticism toward developers, a clear feminist perspective and a commitment to cross-racial coalitions -- three qualities the city can never have enough of. She has our clear support.

 

District No. 10 -- Madison Shockley

Longtime 10th District incumbent Nate Holden is our ranking civic disgrace. No other local legislator has taken so many positions so plainly at odds with the interests of his constituents -- from his last-ditch defense of Daryl Gates, to his lonesome-end opposition to city slum-abatement efforts. Like Art Snyder, he is a master pothole filler, but no other council member has so delayed and derailed the council's business with pointless and often venomous speeches. Above all, no other high-ranking L.A. civic leader has played the race card so deliberately and demagogically. Whether he's berating a city-contract worker for testifying in Spanish during a hearing on the living wage, or accusing council colleagues Mike Feuer and Laura Chick of being "like Westside Ku Klux Klan" for calling for Mike Hernandez's resignation, Holden seeks to exploit whatever xenophobia he can stir up, to the sole end of keeping himself in power. He's playing a dangerous game.

Madison Shockley, the pastor at the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, is an activist-cleric in the tradition of a James Lawson, a Leonard Beerman, a William Sloane Coffin -- that is, in the best tradition of American progressivism. Educated at Harvard and the Union Theological Seminary, Shockley's been convening multiracial dialogues at his church since the early '90s, discussions after which a number of national organizations have modeled their own programs. He's been particularly active in fostering discourses and building coalitions between L.A.'s black, Korean, Latino and Jewish communities. Shockley is the candidate of Coalition L.A., a multiracial network of activists from precincts across the district, and to whom he's pledged to be accountable. He's also been one of the few contestants for any office this spring who's offered detailed and innovative programs in housing, parks and economic revitalization. We support his candidacy with great enthusiasm.

District No. 14 -- Victor Griego

With the decision of longtime power broker Richard Alatorre not to seek re-election for his council seat this spring, the dam broke in Eastside politics. Fully 13 candidates competed in the April primary -- and lamentably, if not surprisingly, the two candidates who made it into the runoff were the two candidates with the most money.

The candidate who ran first was Assistant District Attorney Nick Pacheco, who served diligently for 18 of the past 24 months on the Elected City Charter Reform Commission. Up until last December, he was an unpredictable vote in commission deliberations; since then, as he sought (successfully) the mayor's support for his council bid, he transformed himself into the mayor's unwavering ally. His abrupt conversion to All Things Riordan raises serious questions about his suitability to represent the 14th.

The candidate who ran second was longtime labor-community-organizer-turned-political-consultant Victor Griego, who boasts the longest résumé of anyone on the ballot. At various times over the past two decades, Griego has played a key role on campaigns for the United Farm Workers, for Southwest Voter Registration, for progressive union leaders Maria Elena Durazo and Gil Cedillo, and against NAFTA. Most notably, he headed up UNO's successful 1987 campaign to raise the California minimum wage. More problematically, he has handled such candidates of dubious merit as Vicki Castro and Alatorre himself. He is a deal maker par excellence in a district that has known more than its share of deal makers.  

Griego brings the virtues and limitations of an organizer's sensibility to the campaign. Commendably, he's used his considerable campaign resources to set up a large number of house meetings, out of which has emerged a kind of grassroots Sanitation Department -- a core of volunteers who have been active in a district cleanup program. Not so commendably, Griego's campaign is almost unbearably light on programmatic substance. We are concerned that his résumé suggests he may be too comfortable playing ball with the power elites who have long dominated Eastside politics. We are comforted by the fact that his résumé suggests his fundamental orientation will be to meet constituent concerns and to support, if not initiate, progressive policies.

Given a choice that leaves us drenched with ambivalence, some secondary factors come into play as well. Each of the two candidates is aligned with a distinct larger force in Eastside politics: Griego with Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, Pacheco with Congressman Xavier Becerra. Each of those larger forces is currently comtemplating a mayoral run in 2001, and of the two, we think Villaraigosa has made a real difference in the struggles of working-class L.A., and in a range of important battles. In contradistinction to Becerra, he can assemble the kind of citywide progressive coalition that L.A. clearly needs. So to the extent that this particular council race tips the scales a bit in the mayoral contest two years hence - and to some extent it surely does - that's another reason to favor Griego.

In short, we have some misgivings about Griego -- but we have almost nothing but misgivings about Pacheco. Griego's our clear, if reluctant, choice.

 

LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, MEMBER OF THE BOARD OF EDUCATION

 

1st District -- Genethia Hayes

Barbara Boudreaux is Nate Holden without the charm. Like Holden, she's a civil rights crusader of yore who's curdled over the years into a divisive and somewhat paranoid ethnocentrist, a board member whose interventions in policy discussions run the rather narrow gamut from the frivolous to the demagogic. Her chief contribution to the discussion of district pedagogy over the past term was her misdirected approach to the ebonics issue during the controversy several years ago. Her recent unfounded allegations of racism leveled at two Hamilton High teachers show an imperviousness to facts and an eagerness to play the race card that are frightening in an elected official. Moreover, it is on Boudreaux's watch that the levels of learning at the inner-city schools she professes to defend have continued to decline, and she is stunningly devoid of ideas for how to stop that decline.

There is, happily, an excellent alternative to Bou-dreaux on the ballot. Challenger Genethia Hayes, who almost got enough votes to win the race in the April primary, has been an LAUSD teacher and the principal of a religious school. She's also been a member of the task force that founded the district's LEARN education-reform project, and a compelling champion of fair but measurable standards of educational attainment. For the past several years, Hayes has been executive director of the Greater L.A. Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she has overseen a gang-prevention program, Project AHEAD (which trains parents to become more involved in their children's schools), and other cross-racial dialogues and projects.

Hayes had already declared her candidacy, and garnered support from a wide range of educational reformers and political progressives, when Richard Riordan hopped aboard her bandwagon, so you can't hold his support against her. She would be an independent and highly intelligent addition to the board, and we support her unstintingly.

LOS ANGELES COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT, MEMBER OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES

 

Office No. 1 -- Sylvia Scott-Hayes

Office No. 3 -- Mona Field

Over the past year, the Community College District has begun to institute some of the changes that still elude the LAUSD. Under the new leadership of trustees Elizabeth Garfield and Kelly Candaele, the board has moved to give individual campuses the flexibility to develop academic and vocational programs, along with responsibility for their own budgets. In both of the following election recommendations, we've endorsed a candidate who's committed to push the reform agenda even further.

In Office No. 1, the candidate we think best able to address the district's ailments is Sylvia Scott-Hayes, who heads up the Testing Center and helped found the Writing Center at Cal State L.A. Though you wouldn't know it from her name, she'd also be the only Latino member of this elected-at-large board.  

In Office No. 3, we strongly support Glendale Community College professor Mona Field over 12-year incumbent Julia Wu, who's always been a featherweight force in board deliberations. Field is probably the single best-qualified non-incumbent candidate seeking municipal office in L.A. this year. As head of the teachers union local on the Glendale campus (which is not part of the L.A. district), Field has fostered the very kind of labor-management-student-community relations almost never found on college campuses: collegial relations. She's an education reformer with a proven record of enlisting her fellow teachers in that cause, and we're damn proud to endorse her.

 

LOS ANGELES MUNICIPAL MEASURES

 

Charter Measure 1 -- Yes

This is the biggie on this June's ballot. Measure 1 asks Angelenos to scrap their current city charter -- the city's constitution, adopted in 1924, amended 400 times since, running some 700 pages -- in favor of a new one drafted over the past year by two separate commissions, one elected, one appointed, who merged their efforts into a single document that's a mere 142 pages long.

Let us stipulate at the outset: The vast majority of what is right and what is wrong about L.A.'s civic life -- its government, its politics, its economy, its culture, its schools, its parks, and so on -- has strikingly little to do with the city's charter. The state of our schools depends on fiscal policies set in Sacramento and pedagogical policies set by a school board that is outside the structure of city government. Smog and sprawl are regional issues beyond the scope of the city's powers; the buses that ferry the city's poor, not always in comfort or on time, from home to work and back are controlled by an independent MTA. Public health and welfare are the county's charge, not the city's. Police and fire services, parks, libraries and streets are city functions, though none will be fundamentally altered by rewriting the city charter.

And yet, the charter matters. It matters in questions of how clear the lines of accountability in government actually are. It matters in questions of how democratically and efficiently the government operates. It matters in questions of neighborhood control of development. It matters in questions of independent civilian authority over the LAPD, always a huge issue in Los Angeles. And in all these questions, we find the new charter an improvement -- usually small, sometimes large -- over the old.

The new charter is in no way a radical reconfiguring of the old. Indeed, it is notable for what it leaves unchanged: L.A.'s unusual system of interposing commissions between the mayor and city department heads is left fundamentally unaltered. The council's power to overturn a departmental policy -- not a feature of many city governments -- is left fundamentally unaltered. An independently elected city attorney -- again, an unusual feature for city government and a powerful check-and-balance against mayoral power -- is left utterly unaltered. The two-term limit (of five years each) on the police chief stays in place; public-financing provisions for elections stay in place. The city's ridiculous election calendar -- primaries in April, runoffs in June, of odd-numbered years -- is left in place, presumably for fear that merging city elections with state and federal elections would mean that even fewer people would pay attention to them, though with the current level of voter turnout in city elections hovering near single digits, this is a mathematical impossibility.

Much of what the new charter does is totally noncontroversial. It eliminates many archaic and unintelligible clauses that even the City Attorney's Office can no longer understand. It removes wholly arbitrary requirements: The existing charter, for instance, requires that the City Council have 15 committees with three members each. The new charter lets the council determine how many committees, with how many members, it needs to do its business.

But some of changes in the new charter are highly controversial, at least within the tight little world of City Hall. The subjects of this controversy are several substantial but far-from-earthshaking changes in the balance of power between the council and the mayor. The existing charter, written in 1924 by a mix of transplanted Midwestern provincials and crusading California progressives, favored not just a system of checks and balances but a fragmentation of power unusual for a major American city. The standard American division of power between the legislative and executive branches was blurred, so that the mayor's administrative control over city departments was partly shared with the council. In the current charter, the mayor's ability to discharge a department head, for instance, is countered by the council's ability to overturn the firing by a majority vote.  

The new charter changes the existing balance -- modestly. Under its terms, the mayor can fire a department head, and the council can still overturn it -- but it will require a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. The mayor is also given the power to fire his or her part-time commissioners (except police and ethics commissioners) without council review of that action. The mayor is also given the power to appoint the city's lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington, a power currently and mysteriously vested in the chief legislative analyst. Meanwhile, the council's Proposition 5 power to overturn a departmental policy remains largely intact. As we see it, these changes will result in clearer accountability for departmental policy and performance, while the city will still maintain a considerable body of checks and balances.

Some council members see these changes, however, as destabilizing the Delicate Balance of the Known Universe. Constituents come to them, they assert, when they need their streets paved and their trees trimmed, and the agencies respond more swiftly because the council has more control over them than most legislative bodies do over administrative agencies. If this argument were true, however, Los Angeles would have markedly better city services than virtually any major American city, since this quasi-administrative council capacity is peculiar to L.A. To put it gently, we do not think this is the case.

If the proposed charter change is enacted, moreover, we suspect that constituents will still call their council members, and that their council members will still call the city departments, and that the work will get done at about the rate it proceeds now. Constituents call state legislators and members of Congress all the time, too, despite the fact that their de jure power is purely legislative, and somehow those legislators and congressmen manage to call administrative-agency heads to get things done nonetheless.

THE NEW CHARTER'S VERY MODEST CENTRALIZATION of power in the executive is offset, however, by a modest diffusion of power into the neighborhoods. This diffusion is created by three separate measures:

First, by the creation of smaller City Council districts, should measures 3 and/or 4 on this ballot also be enacted; second, by supplementing the one current citywide Planning Commission with at least five area planning commissions, so that planning decisions can be made by a body that is closer to, and more representative of, the affected area; and third, by the creation of a system of advisory neighborhood councils.

From the outset of the charter-reform process, neighborhood councils were held out as a means of reducing the sense of civic alienation and powerlessness presumably fueling the Valley's secessionist impulses. Whether or â not that proves to be the case, the neighborhood councils that the new charter outlines in the sketchiest of ways seem to offer a genuine if modest increase in the political power of neighborhoods and, more generally, in the level of local democracy.

The new charter creates a new Department of Neighborhood Empowerment that will oversee the creation of some kind of local councils by the city's various regions -- varying in form from neighborhood to neighborhood according to the wishes of the respective neighborhoods. The only charter stipulations are that every neighborhood of the city be included within a council, and that the councils be open to all who not just live, but also work and own property, in the area. The councils' power is advisory, but in cities that have such councils, such as Portland and St. Paul, the advice each council offers its city-council member on land-use, allocation of services and other issues is generally taken.

Neighborhood councils are not a panacea for a moribund civic culture. A city devoid of political movements and activist crusades will not have throngs streaming into its neighborhood councils. Nonetheless, even in a time of very limited activism, the councils can play a useful role; and in periods like the '30s and the '60s, councils could be transformed into (to borrow a phrase from Justice Brandeis) "laboratories of democracy."

Some of the new charter's opponents say that it missed an opportunity to build genuine local control by its failure to create neighborhood councils with more than advisory powers, by its failure to create more area planning councils or a vastly larger City Council. We sympathize with some of their arguments, but to oppose the charter because it takes only two steps toward local democracy instead of 10 is to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

 

THE NEW CHARTER ALSO GIVES constitutional standing to the most important progressive initiative in recent city history, and makes a major change that increases the independent oversight of the Police Department. Building on a groundbreaking 1997 city law, the charter mandates that city-contract workers be paid a living wage, the amount to be specified by council ordinance. And finally, the charter advances the uncompleted work of the Christopher Commission by strengthening the independent inspector general for the LAPD, vesting that officer with full access to all departmental information independent of the chief or the Police Commission's executive director, and with the ability to initiate any investigation of police misconduct without prior authorization of the commission or anyone else.  

Could a better document than the charter now before us still be drafted? Possibly, but unless the balance of political power in the city shifts radically, it's hard to see why it would be much different than the one before us now. Besides, if Measure 1 is defeated, it's unlikely any major attempt to revise the charter will be upon us soon. The last effort at rewriting the city charter occurred in 1971. If the charter is not changed in this election, the charter of 1925, with all its peculiar diffusions and contortions of power, will likely be with us for 100 years. The new charter creates a government that is modestly more accountable, efficient and democratic -- and a Police Department that is clearly moreâ accountable to independent oversight. That's good enough for us.

 

Charter Amendment 2 -- Yes

The proposed new charter, up for approval in Measure 1, makes some modest changes in the city-election rules, in particular creating a Redistricting Commission charged with re-drawing council districts after every decennial census, though the commission must then submit its handiwork to the council for final approval. (In the current charter, the council has sole control of the process from start to finish.) The charter makes an analogous change in the LAUSD school board's dicennial redistricting, establishing a separate commission whose proposal also goes before the council. (This is the one area where the council has some statutory authority over school-district policy.) Since the LAUSD includes areas that are not part of the city of L.A., this change has to be voted on separately from the charter.

There is some reason to think that these redistricting commissions would create at least modestly more compact and coherent districts than those the council has been known to create on its own (council president John Ferraro's North Hollywood­to­Hancock Park district is a notable lulu), and that the council might be too embarrassed to dismiss their work altogether. Okay, we know the council's capacity for embarrassment falls somewhere between the underdeveloped and the nonexistent, but a commission couldn't hurt. We're for 2.

 

Charter Amendment 3 -- Yes

Charter Amendment 4 -- Yes

These measures increase the size of the City Council from its current 15 members to 21, if Amendment 3 passes, or 25, if Amendment 4 passes. If both amendments pass, the one with more votes takes effect. But neither takes effect unless Measure 1, adopting the new charter, is passed as well.

When the current charter was adopted in 1924, Los Angeles was a city of 750,000 people, and each of its 15 council members represented just 50,000 people. Today, Los Angeles has upward of 3,600,000 residents, meaning each of its 15 council members represents at least 240,000 people. A council district in millennial L.A. is about twice the size of Glendale, and the ability of the council members to address the needs of so many constituents is accor-dingly diminished. No other large American city has council districts remotely this large: In Houston, districts contain roughly 170,000 residents, and no other major city has districts of more than 150,000.

Decreasing the size of districts creates the possibility of a more diverse City Council and the certainty of a more democratic one. The larger the district, the more expensive the campaigns waged to represent it. Candidates with less money of their own, who are less beholden to special interests, stand a greater chance of victory in smaller districts. Correspondingly, smaller districts also increase the impact that volunteer precinct walkers can have on the outcome of a race. A larger council may not only better reflect the city's diversity, then, but it may also diminish the political power of money and enhance the political power of people. For this reason, we prefer a council of 25 to a council of 21 -- but since there's no way to gauge which amendment has a better chance of passage, we're recommending a Yes vote on both.


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