How much power should neighborhood councils wield in an updated, more responsive city government? Division on that key issue has produced a rift between the two Los Angeles charter commissions and may also signal a break between two major factions of L.A. labor.

Although last month the commissions seemed to agree on promoting appointed local councils, it now looks like the 1999 city election could pose a choice between a charter that provides elected neighborhood government and one that does not. The turnabout occurred Saturday, when the Elected Charter Commission voted to make neighborhood councils into 35 individual elected panels.

This shift runs against Mayor Dick Riordan's avowed goal in spending hundreds of thousands of his own dollars to create the Elected Commission: simplified government with power concentrated at the top. But now the Elected Commission wants elected neighborhood councils. The Appointed Commission wants appointed councils. And no compromise is in sight.

Meanwhile, organized labor, which spent heavily last year to seat its own majority on the Elected Commission, is itself split on the elected-council issue.

This break is between the service and building-trades unions. The service unions, particularly Service Employees International Union Local 347, representing Los Angeles city employees, support strong elected neighborhood councils. Said Julie Butcher, the 347 president, who attended the Elected Charter Commission meeting Saturday, “As long as we're going to reform the charter, let's do it right.”

Due to labor's campaign against Proposition 226 early this week, building-trades officials were not available for comment. But Rafael Sonnenshein, the executive director for the Appointed Commission, observed that the major crafts unions, along with the construction industry, have been cool toward elected neighborhood councils. They fear that such councils might become knee-jerk NIMBYs, blocking major development of any kind in their represented communities.

The Elected Commission delayed a vote Saturday on whether the councils would make decisions on development and other land-use issues. But most of those who spoke in favor of elected panels Saturday said that controlling development was a key goal.

Elected Commission chair Erwin Chemerinsky, who has recently come to support elected councils, said, “We're struggling with these planning issues.”

If the voters do get to vote for elected councils, the regional business establishment will probably join the building trades in opposition. The Los Angeles Business Advisors, a downtown organization with ties to the Riordan administration, contend that such councils would create another layer of the very government bureaucracy charter reform should eliminate.

State Senator Tom Hayden strongly supported elected councils Saturday. But Hayden also suggested that their decisions might be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

The form of neighborhood government proposed last Saturday has no current equivalent anyplace in the United States, Sonnenshein said. Even Lois Atkin, an elected-council supporter, pointed out, “There is a great danger of Balkanization” in the idea.

Other speakers ridiculed advisory councils as powerless entities resembling student governments. Westside activist Fred Dewey deplored, “Advisory councils are always overridden.”

LA Weekly