October 30, 1994 - From the October, 1994 issue

Reinventing Local Government: A Veteran’s Perspective

As part of an occasional series by The Planning Report on the various structures of California government and the consequences for land use planning and development, TPR presents an interview with local government veteran, James Hankla, City Manager for the City of Long Beach and former CAO of Los Angeles County. 

The issue of Charter reform is a much debated topic these days in many municipalities throughout California. What should our readers be focused upon as they examine the possible restructuring of local government? Is the City Manager form the best choice? 

Personally, I believe that what we have in the city management form of government is essentially a corporate form of management. I always hear people say they want cities to be more like businesses. With the city management form of government, the City Council is, for all intents and purposes, a board of directors; and the Mayor is the Board Chair; and the City Manager is the Chief Executive Officer in charge of carrying out the policies of the board of directors. 

In addition, city managers don't have to run for office and don't have to raise campaign funds, so they should be able to devote their entire attention to the management of the city, and not be diverted by partisan politics or provincial politics, we ought to be able to keep our eyes on the prize. And that prize should be the implementation of the goals that are established for us by the elected officials. So in my judgment, the City Management structure is the soundest form of local government.

It's seems that the populist design of Los Angeles' government is the antithesis of Long Beach's City Management form of governance. How would you compare these two government structures?

Absolutely. We're bookends. I lament for my brothers and sisters in charge of carrying out the challenges of the City of Los Angeles and County of Los Angeles. First of all, they are shackled by civil service protection through the general manager level. I don't think that I need to remind your readers of the incredible problem in Los Angeles, when they came to a change in the road with the Los Angeles Police Department. 

In Long Beach, our middle management through top management is responsible to the City Manager. Thus, if the City Council establishes a policy goal, I can get all 235 managers to march in the same direction at the same time. You can't do that in either the City or County of Los Angeles. At the County, the department heads and Chief Administrative Office are exempt, but the other 85,000 County employees are not at-risk on any given issue. I think that is wrong. We proposed a ballot initiative in 1986 to change that, but we were unsuccessful. Middle management and certainly top management ought to be at-risk for carrying out the policies of elected officials. 

Why do you think Los Angeles voters have rejected such accountability three times in the last de­cade? 

Basically, the charge that is generally leveled is that the electorate has some sort of a knee jerk reaction to the perception of a spoils system. The public is barraged with the ridiculous notion that the only choice they have is top to bottom civil service protection or the spoils systems. The reality is that we have a tremendously well developed public professional management cadre in this country and in this region, which shouldn’t be confused with the people running in the parishes along with the politics in Louisiana.

Most cities in California don’t have civil service, they have a merit system.

What’s the impact of the fiscal crisis on governance issues in Long Beach?

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What you are seeing in Long Beach is a city that has probably undergone more transition in demographics than any other major city in California, and maybe even in America. But, more importantly, this is a trend that will be continuing throughout California cities. The resilience that the city has demonstrated, not only in coping with the dramatic demographic shifts, but also, the great recession, military downsizing and the absolute collapse of the aerospace industry in the region, has been remarkable. And remember, all of this has been happening while we have been shrinking our general fund, adding police officers and literally doing much more with a heck of a lot less. 

Unfortunately, I think next four years is going to be even tougher in terms of fiscal resources. Cities have to get smarter, do things differently, and all the time we are doing this, I believe that our senior levels of government continue to pick our pockets, shifting more of their responsibilities to local governments.

What precisely has been the impact of the State’s fiscal crisis on local government?

Literally, I believe the State may be forcing the complete collapse of county government, unnecessarily so. There is a lack of reasoned, reasonable expectations from State government as to what they want their countries to do. While counties are just extensions of the State government, cities are created by local populations, and the great myth is that we are doing at the local level is just giving back the State for what they did for us after Prop. 13. There is probably not a larger load of baloney anywhere. If you take a close look and carefully analyze what the State has done since Prop. 13, they reduced far more municipal revenues that they have transferred over, more than they ever bailed out the cities after Prop 13.

Is there a vision being promulgated by the State that gives you some comfort?

I think the problem at the state level is that there is clearly a need for the Legilsature to focus on where this State is going. I happen to believe that one of their problems seems to be term limits. I think the Legislature has not had the incentive to focus on long-range or even short-range solutions to our problems. One view is that term limits turns over more power to bureaucrats and technocrats, and that may not be healthy. Some argue that term limits provide disincentives to legislators to grapple with tough issues. Others argue the opposite, that legislators focusing on a legislative career become too beholden to special interests.

Wherever the truth lies, presently, we are reaping confusion in the Legislature. At the same time, we’ve wiped out a lot of credible and intelligent people in legislative staff positions in Sacramento, and I hink there is a major problem in Sacramento for which we are paying the price. 

I don’t think we are very far from the day when we’ll need to have a Constitutional Convention, because we are not far from the day when in many places, people are going to dial 911 and nothing is going to happen. And that will be the day people will say we have to fix this mess.

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