June 30, 1992 - From the June, 1992 issue

Richard Weiss: L.A. City Charter Undermines Public Accountability

Though The Planning Report does not typically publish letters to TPR, this letter by Contributing Editor Richard Weiss, now living in Estes Park, Colorado, seemed so particularly insightful that we decided to share it with our subscribers.

I read the latest Planning Report with sensitive interest. I was impressed with your critical comments concerning the potential invasion of the city’s capital resources in order to sustain the police and fire department capabilities of the city. That aside, all that I read, including the back page proposal by Joy Picus to fragment the Planning Commission, encourages me to react. 

When I first came to Los Angeles in 1943, and in 1948 moved there with my family, it was quite a differ­ent place. The sweeping Charter re­form of Fletcher Bowren in reaction to the corruption of the Shaw regime were just being absorbed in the com­munity. Despite mobster Mickey Cohen, whose continuing criminal activity still made the Sunset Strip a scary place to be, Los Angeles in those days was clean, clean, clean: clean in physical appearance, clean in atmosphere and squeaky clean in its politics. Mickey Cohen’s classic quote at the time was, “This town is chaotic, there is nobody to pay off.” 

But it was that very Charter re­form which sowed the seeds of the current deterioration in the fiber of the city. The new Charter caused centralization of government to be dismembered to the degree that from then on nobody really reported to anyone else (other than to the electorate which, unanticipated at the time, is no ultimately diverse and largely unengaged). As a result, accountability by public officials, elected and appointed, is today virtually absent, and lack of responsibility at every level is endemic.

Imagine a situation in the nation’s second largest city where the city’s mayor and the city’s police chief did not communicate for over a year before the riots.

It is not just in policing that this fragmentation of authority occurs. In 1964, when Cal Hamilton became chief of the city’s Planning Department, I was the head of real estate for Sunset International Petroleum Corporation. Con Howe’s comment in his interview in The Planning Report about the necessity “... to strengthen relationships with other public agencies” in the city points out one of the continuing serious problems in Los Angeles government.

The lack of communication and coordination between the city’s diverse and fragmented single purpose agencies and commissions creates a nightmare of paramount proportions. Back in the ‘60s when Cal was new on the job and enjoying his honeymoon, we accomplished our task, but you remember what happened afterward to Cal and to Ken Topping for that matter, when the honeymoon ended. Watch out, Con Howe!

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The Fletcher Bowren “reforms” have virtually destroyed Los Angeles’ ability to act even in an emergency. It is one thing to have a separation of powers to avoid the concentration which encourages corruption, but it is quite another to have power so diluted and diversified that only chaos can result — and has resulted.

What Los Angeles needs (and perhaps it is politically unobtainable) is an entire Charter revision which will provide for a mayor with more than just persuasive influence, with less emphasis upon independent citizen commissions and more emphasis upon directive capacity.

Churchill’s pronouncement that democracy is the worst of all forms of government “except for all others” is accurate, but in a city this excess of democracy is destructure. Sometime ago, it was common to observe that Chicago was a city taht “worked” — and worked it did! I lived there during the Democratic Convention riots in the ‘60s (participated in by Tom Hayden, the California statesman). The situation was quite different from L.A. in 1992. A mayor must be able, as Mayor Daley was then, to direct that the action stop now, and to call to task those responsible, now! Poor Bradley (like poor Yorty and Poulson before him) is powerless — it is built into the Charter. It is an intolerable situation.

If Los Angeles is to realize its dream, if it is to be made to work, it is going to take more than piecemeal action like Prop. F or Joy Picus’ attempt at further fragmentation of power. It is going to take courageous direction and major modification of the entire political structure.

The LLACC, the RISC, SCAG, the 2000 Partnership and all of the other do-gooders (of which I was very much a part for years) have all failed. Maybe you can do something about it. In the meantime, all of the federal help in the world will be completely ineffective unless the local municipal government reorganizes its structure.

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