August 30, 1997 - From the August, 1997 issue

Los Angeles Charter Reform: The Opportunities and Obstacles Ahead

By Timoty Lynch, L.A. Deputy City Controller

The City of Los Angeles is ending the 20th Century with two lawful bodies empowered to make recommendations that could change the City of Los Angeles in the next century. In its own way, how we proceed with Charter reform may be every bit as significant to the future of Los Angeles as the end of British rule was/is for Hong Kong. It may turn out to be a hollow promise, but the concept of "One China/Two Systems" has a power all its own. In today's world, is it beyond our imagination and vision to argue that Los Angeles deserves a government with greater sophistication and autonomy than a Burbank or an El Segundo?

Charter reform is potentially a means for Los Angeles city government to play a grander role than it has in recent years. It is easy to be blasé or even cynical about the Charter Reform process that is now underway. The motives of many of those who have created the two Charter Reform committees—one appointed and one elected—are suspect. But neither Committee is predictable nor under the control of some all-powerful influence, and has often been observed about juries, small group dynamics oftentimes creates unpredictable coalitions and outcomes.

The enemy of both charter reform groups—at least for now—is the appalling voter apathy in the City and the lack of any real vision on what Los Angeles could and should be like twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now. The call for a vision of what Los Angeles should be was made most forcefully a few months ago by Kevin Starr in a presentation to the appointed Charter Reform Committee. A new vision remains the greatest challenge for those who would change things. 

One of the greatest challenges to Los Angeles is how to guarantee its own financial security. There are many things the City of Los Angeles "can't" do about its finances. We can't tax banks, savings and loans, insurance companies, non-profit groups, interstate commerce, international trade, and a whole host of other interests because of the California or the U.S. Constitution, or some judicial ruling. We also can't change property tax rates, or enact many taxes at all without a direct vote of the people, more often than not by a two-thirds majority. As a result, the Los Angeles City revenue stream is hundreds of millions of dollars a year less than it would be without these restrictions.

Many of these fiscal restrictions are relatively new to Los Angeles. After all, Charter cities were once considered almost mini-states, with powers to tax within their borders that supposedly were granted by their charters. The most significant new limitations are the result of voter initiatives since 1978 when Proposition 13 passed, the State Legislature's reaction to those voter initiatives, and court decisions since the early 1980s. So far nearly 20 years local governments, including Los Angeles, have stumbled around, making do or making compromises, in response to actions by others in Sacramento, at the ballot box, or in courts. Local government is increasingly reactive, with fewer and fewer revenue options. Occasionally, as with Proposition BB in April of 1997, the $2.4 billion bond measure passed by over two-thirds of the voters in the LAUSD, these obstacles to securing new funding pass. Just as often, again as with Proposition BB in November of 1996, these types of measures fail. 

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It would be easy to despair over this situation, as many have. It would be more prudent to face the limitations squarely, and decide how to overcome them. If financial resources are the limiting factor in making Los Angeles a better City than it is today, then clearly a means must be devised to obtain the necessary resources to do what is important. This is not a new problem for Los Angeles, just look at the history of this City. What does seem new is a lack of faith in the leadership of the city's institutions (including the MTA, the school district, and the county government). Until voters have more confidence in their leaders, it is unrealistic to expect them to entrust government with more tax money.

One major contribution charter reform can make is in building that trust. Rick Tuttle has put forth a number of Charter reform proposals that would increase voter participation in government, and improve the delivery of services. These recommendations, along with other proposals being discussed today, have the potential to inspire confidence in voters that their tax dollars will be spent efficiently. Without trust, voters are likely to conclude they would be pouring money into a bankrupt institution that is incapable of using new resources wisely, given the perception of how we are using current resources. 

But charter reformers and commissioners, both appointed and elected, would be shortchanging the voters and themselves if this is all they attempt to do. We—the collective group of parties interested in making Los Angeles something more than it is today—should use this window of opportunity to give Los Angeles the tools it needs to determine its own future. Is the flow of power from the City to the Federal and State government irreversible? Can laws be drafted to overcome court decisions? Is it so bad that elected officials need voter approval for new taxes? 

Los Angeles is not the only city in the U.S. that has faced external constraints. Some cities have overcome these barriers better than others, even some cities in California. But it would be a mistake to only look at cities within California for useful models of a belier City government. Why should Los Angeles, a City three times the population of any other in California, the second largest City in the United States and one of the few "world-class” cities on this planet, be put in a position where it has to compete (at least in the minds of many decision-makers) with the City of Industry, or for that matter, Burbank? Los Angeles, as we know it, wouldn't be here today if it had considered itself limited to the accomplishments of cities that are so clearly in a different league. It may take time and extraordinary effort, but today, we have the potential to truly make our own future. We have ample examples of State and Federal laws changing in the past to meet Los Angeles' desires. Let's begin the debate on what authority the city wants and needs to function as a great city, and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by legalisms.

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