As an impending hanging concentrates the condemned man‘s mind, so the threat of secession has forced Los Angeles to ponder a raft of municipal reforms. In 1999, the city adopted a new City Charter which created a neighborhood council system, weakened some of the City Council’s powers (the inevitable result of prolonged voter exposure to Nate Holden) and enhanced those of the mayor.

Now, with the vote on breaking up the city scarcely four months away, our civic power structure is considering two plans to subdivide the city into boroughs. City Council rookie Wendy Greuel wants to create a commission that will come back with a borough plan after a year‘s study. Van Nuys Assemblyman (and former Speaker) Bob Hertzberg has already done the work of a commission all by his lonesome, producing a veritable magnum opus of a borough plan. Greuel and Hertzberg have been meeting to see if they can reach some common ground, and whatever plan or plans emerge, they still need to win the votes of eight council members and the mayor’s signature to place a measure on the November ballot.

At first glance, a borough system looks particularly suited to Los Angeles. After all, we‘re the city without a center — where downtown looms smaller than it does in other big cities, where the big employment and retail centers have always spread across the county. Besides, the government established by 1925 charter — which the 1999 charter reform didn’t alter in its fundamentals — was created to reflect a largely homogeneous city. Straight through 1960, L.A. was the most white, Protestant, major city in the land; straight through the mid-‘70s, it was overwhelmingly middle-class or decently paid working-class. That Los Angeles has vanished today; with New York, we are now the most ethnically diverse and class-stratified city in the U.S.

So a system that recognizes the vast physical distances in this city, that gives regions some of the autonomy in government they already have in economic and cultural spheres, that creates more governments for a more diverse population certainly makes sense. And that’s just what Hertzberg has sketched. His plan calls for nine new boroughs of 410,000 Angelenos each, with each borough consisting of five districts at 82,000 Angelenos apiece. Voters would elect their borough council member within that 82,000-soul district; the five borough council members would then choose a borough president from their ranks; and the nine borough presidents would supplant the current City Council as a half-time legislative Board of Presidents. This Board of Presidents would receive, alter and approve the mayor‘s budget, and maintain jurisdiction over the big citywide issues: police, fire, airport, harbor, approvals on all new projects exceeding 50,000 square feet. The borough councils would control issues of housing, community development, parks, libraries and zoning — the neighborhood stuff. aHertzberg’s plan also testifies to his political smarts. The onetime Jewish-kid-from- the-Valley whose first boyhood gig was as a driver in the Merv Dymally machine, and who later became Gloria Molina‘s consigliere, has created two boroughs dominated by African-Americans, three or four dominated by Latinos, three boroughs entirely in the Valley — in short, what the former speaker terms a ”majority minority“ plan, where the ”nonwhite“ boroughs outnumber the ”white“ ones on the Board of Presidents, and where white Valley homeowner-types should be happy nonetheless. Drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of L.A. governance and politics, throwing himself into this project with his usual manic enthusiasm and determination, the quintessential Hertzberg — vision and mania both — is on full display in his ring-binder book of borough maps. ”It’s typical Bob,“ says one friend. ”Let a thousand three-ringed binders bloom.“

Whether all that is sufficient to get this plan to first base is another matter altogether. To put this measure on the ballot, Hertzberg needs eight council members to vote, essentially, to abolish the council. As he had figured it, four council members were termed out anyway, and his plan would allow them to run for borough office, perhaps borough presidency — in effect, extending their term on the council. Moreover, the way the maps were drawn, eight council members would clearly have undisputed claim to a particular borough — that is, they wouldn‘t have to fight a current council colleague if they wanted to run for office there. And yet, Hertzberg is nowhere near eight.

The council members are right to have reservations about the Hertzberg plan, and not just because it could royally screw up their careers. For one thing, it decisively imbalances what power remains at City Hall. Under the plan, the Board of Presidents is supposed to meet no more than every other week, with the odd week, presumably, spent attending to borough affairs closer to home. Creating a part-time council, however, gives vastly more power to the mayor. On the plus side, the Hertzberg plan does have the altogether salutary effect of making it more difficult for the money men of the developer elite — for the George Mihlsteins and the Ed Roskis — to buy the Board of Presidents as they now do much of the council, since at no point during election campaigns will it be clear who those presidents will be. The downside of these indirect elections, however, is to deny voters a right to vote directly on their new City Council — which also enhances the power of the mayor, who’ll become the only lawmaker and executive inside City Hall elected directly by voters.

And the problems with boroughs reach way beyond City Hall. If all that ailed L.A. was the inaccessibility of the current city government, a borough plan would be a panacea — but L.A. is also beset by parochialism and a fragmentation of power that themselves render government inaccessible, and that boroughs may only exacerbate. ”There‘s a contradiction here,“ says council member Eric Garcetti. ”More layers of government may lead to better policy, but certainly not to better, more streamlined services.“ Garcetti also raises another important objection: ”Each borough president has to keep his four borough colleagues happy; they can vote him out of the presidency at any time. There’ll be a strong temptation for the president to be even more parochial and NIMBY-ite in his perspective.“ USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who chaired the elected charter reform commission in the late-‘90s, says that the tendency of a borough system to elevate the most local concerns over all others was one reason why the commission didn’t recommend such a system. ”Under the Hertzberg plan, the city can control the sighting of a shopping center,“ he says, ”but not a homeless center. It‘ s too small. And who on those borough councils is going to locate shelters or halfway houses in their boroughs?“

Worse yet, the borough program as currently proposed parcels out jurisdiction over civic institutions according to their size and their regional impact: parks and libraries to the boroughs; airports, harbors and cops to the city. But what about social policy? The two most important ordinances the city has enacted in recent years were those establishing a living wage for city contract workers, and setting up an affordable-housing trust fund. Who would, or could, undertake such hugely important changes in policy under the new system? On affordable housing, the city voted to pool a number of revenue sources to create the fund. Those revenues won’t be available in any significant size to boroughs; and who‘s to say that the West Valley borough wants any affordable housing built at all? Who’s to say they want the workers contracted with their borough to get a decent wage?

A borough system makes a good deal of sense for Los Angeles, but I find I look on such a plan as Jefferson looked on the newly drafted Constitution: I‘m for it if you add a Bill of Rights. There needs to be a way to ensure that the critical needs of millions of Angelenos — for a fair wage, for a decent apartment, for a shelter from the street or an abusive spouse — don’t fall victim to a system that views neighborhood self-determination (or property values) as the highest good. The ultimate challenge that L.A. faces, after all, isn‘t that of local control. It’s the pervasive, systemic and growing poverty in which about half of us live. And the final test for any change in governance here — be it secession or boroughs or something else — is whether it makes us a more decent city, or a meaner one.

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