August 30, 1997 - From the August, 1997 issue

Marvin Braude: A TPR Exit Interview with an Honest Man

Marvin Braude has been a fixture on the L.A. political scene for over three decades. And countless policies and landmarks of the City bear the mark of his hand—everything from the Santa Monica Mountains to our post Proposition U zoning law. Few people in L.A. are as qualified to comment on the changing political currents in the basin, the hopes for charter reform or, simply, how to get things done within our sprawling political structure. TPR is pleased to present the following discussion with Braude, Project Restore’s newest Boardmember. 


Marvin Braude: “We have innumerable districts that each control one aspect of the economy & the politics of the City. That fragmentation leads to a lack of accountability.”

Marvin, as you leave the L.A. City Council after 32 years of service, please review your record of achievements for our readers. 

The Santa Monica mountains are what brought me to the political sphere in the first place. We have created a beautiful and magnificent national recreation area—40,000 acres in the public domain that future generations will use and enjoy. All of this started from a meeting of six people I brought together in my living room. I'm very proud of that achievement.

I'm also proud of being an early pioneer in the battle against the cigarette industry. I authored the first ordinance to prohibit smoking in restaurants. And we were the first large city in the country to implement such a law, serving as a model for State and federal officials.

I also worked to reform the City's planning problems caused by overbuilding. Although the City Council and the Mayor opposed my reforms, I led the citizen initiative to change zoning laws to cut the bulk and height of buildings by one-half—probably the most significant land-use reform in the history of this City.

I'm really embarrassed by all the things I've accomplished.

I'm proud of my work on the finance committee, which I chaired for twelve years. I brought about zero-based budgeting, which was a very fundamental reform in the financial affairs of this City. And I'm very pleased to have been selected to beChairman of the Police Committee formed after the L.A. Riots. I had the opportunity to work with Warren Christopher to bring about substantial reforms to the Police department. And I helped get those reforms passed by the City Council and accepted by the voters. We changed the whole culture of the LAPD—maybe not as quickly as we would have liked to, but we got it moving in the right direction.

The end of your service on the City Council comes at a time when people have very little understanding or regard for local government, or an appreciation of what's possible to accomplish through public office. The headline of an article Zev recently wrote: "Marvin Braude is One of a Kind", has a subtitle: "He showed us that you don't have to be President, Governor or Mayor to have a monumental impact." What can be done of value through service in local government? 

We should have the courage to experiment and try new things. This City is a reservoir of talent, imagination and experience and can serve as a role model at the forefront of cultural, social, political and economic change. 

All of these innovations start more easily at the city level. They may not get very far, they may not spread all over, but eventually, if the ideas are meritorious and effective, they will be adopted. That is the way to bring about change.

How do you explain how little appreciated local government and the City Council are by the public at large?

It's a consequence of the divisiveness of society and the lack of civility in its political forums. But this has been the nature of the political process since the founding of the Republic. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Nixon all experienced vitriolic attacks. But somehow or other the democratic process has survived. And as a result, we have a society that has constantly improved over the years.

Charter reform has become a rallying cry for some frustrated with local government. What is too little understood about the role and function of local government that should be better understood by the public if the outcome of charter reform efforts is to be positive?

We need to understand local government's powers and its limitations. There is a terrible fragmentation of organization. We elected a School Board, State representatives and County representatives. We have innumerable districts that each control one aspect of the economy and the politics of the City. That fragmentation leads to a lack of accountability.

A corollary is that there is not sufficient power for an executive to provide the leadership to get things done. People don't understand the overlapping responsibilities and complexity of our government, or the need to protect the public interest.

And there is a myth pervasive in our culture that if everyone pursues his or her own self-interest, somehow public good will automatically follow. That's just false—it simply isn't so. Each of us in our private lives has to sacrifice many things that we want so we can create more public good. That is fundamental.

What outcome of the current charter deliberations would lead you to conclude that something positive has resulted from the effort to recraft the governing document of the City of Los Angeles?

The City must have a mayor who is accountable to all the people, and we need a system where the City Council provides balance. It is difficult for the City Council to put forward programs for the members to work together effectively—the Mayor can be the principle instrument for providing basic leadership. In a Democratic society, we have to have leadership, and we have to have the courage to give power to that leadership to achieve things. As a corollary, we need to ensure that they're held accountable. This system has to be accountable. We have a fragmented system, with our commissions, weak mayor and independent School Board.

I don't think the Charter Commissions will be able to fundamentally impact the more serious problems. But they will do some fine tuning and improve some aspects of City government. I don't expect that there will be startling, fundamental reforms.

What is your evaluation of Mayor Riordan's second inaugural agenda and what are the possibilities for strong leadership in his last term as Mayor?

The Mayor made a mistake in talking primarily about the School Board and school issues. Of course these things are important. But the fact is, the City does not have any authority over the School Board.

The Mayor should have addressed the more fundamental problems of the City. What functions should the City perform? How are you going to get the revenue to pay for these things? A corollary is how to distribute the burden of taxes fairly and equitably onto the various diverse elements in the City. That is what the City government is supposed to do.

How has the City Government been doing in addressing those issues? What grade would you give it?

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I give it a "C." We have made some progress, but we need to be a much more important player and much stronger leader for Los Angeles.

There has been friction between the Mayor and the Council regarding the policy direction of the charter reform effort. Is the battleline fairly drawn between the Mayor wanting more power and a group of unaccountable, less-than-capable legislators wanting to retain it? Is there a better way to address the challenge facing local government, to find a workable balance of power post Prop. 13 and 218?

There isn't any question in my mind that the City Council, the Mayor and our City professional staff have the capability to do much better. To some extent, we are restrained by our constituents and our inability to bring about a consensus. It affects the political configuration of Los Angeles and its people. The Council fairly represents the people of the City. Especially in the last decade. 

I am not sure finding a balance point is possible. I do know that the Mayor needs more authority so that he can be held more accountable. 

All we have to do is look at the experience of private industry. You wouldn't run a big corporation or a big bureaucracy without a chief executive who is in charge and held accountable. We should move more toward that format. 

Also, the Council should concentrate much more on policy and much less on administrative matters. The Council now spends 90% of its time on administrative matters and only 5% of its time on policy. Those numbers ought to be reversed. A legislative body should be preoccupied with policy, not questions of when it's permissible to put banners on street poles when these sorts of things should be handled by department heads and other officials.

What grade would you give the civic leadership of the City?

A very low grade- a "C-"a best. This is one of the greatest metropolitan areas in the world—one of the most forward-looking, and one of the wealthiest and best educated. That we can't deliver a business community and unify around a consensus and an agenda for the good of the City—for the good of the public, the people of the City—is beyond my comprehension. There is no excuse for anybody remaining in their own little world and not being worried about the overall economy and health of this City.

Some people in the business community contribute very well. But in general, I have to give the business community poor marks. The great cities of the world are the ones where the civic leadership and the business leadership work together to constructively improve the City. It's in those cities and metropolitan areas where the public sees enormous benefits and has better government.

Let's talk about the roles you might play in that civic leadership. One of the contributions you've made in your career was to be at the creation of and to nurture the Air Quality Management District in Southern California. You have just left the Governing Board, and an attack on the executive officer has just driven him from office. What are your hopes, expectations, and fears for the South Coast Air Quality Management district and whatshould be the role of the City of L.A. in shaping its agenda?

I'm very proud of the role I played in the creation of that institution. It's a remarkable organization. It's democratic, able to work with business and environmental groups, and is tackling a very difficult, controversial and technically complex set of issues: Regulating industry so we can clean the air. For the most part we have been very, very successful. 

From the very beginning of the District, there was a strong effort on the part of some—primarily from the business community—to destroy it. There is a coalition saying that most people don't believe in government at all, that they shouldn't regulate anything. And they have become a powerful force. But over the years we have been able to overcome their attacks. 

They have succeeded in their recent attack on Jim Lents, the outgoing Executive Director. They've forced Dr. Lents out, and he will be very difficult to replace. He contributed greatly to this institution. 

We should be proud of this institution, we should be bragging about it. Instead we're being attacked and we're defending it. That is a sad story about government in our Los Angeles metropolitan area. 

Why don't you also comment on term limits now that elected officials in the City of Los Angeles can serve only 8 years. That would have forced you out of office twenty-four years ago.

Had term limits been in place when I started my career, I would not have been able to achieve most of the things I've been able to. At the end of eight years, I had barely learned how to function.

Term limits are a disaster for the public good because they give all the power to the lobbyists and the bureaucrats. They take away the power of the people who defend the public interests on the behalf of the people—the elected officials.

Moreover, it's demeaning to tell people that they aren't competent to make a judgment about who to vote for, and that we have to limit their choice. Term limits have already been destructive and will be even more so in the future. Ultimately they will be eliminated.

Lastly, let's close with what your hopes and expectations are for your long-time Chief of Staff who succeeds you in office, Cindy Miscikowski. 

I'm not only hopeful, I'm certain that she is going to make a significant contribution to our public life. She is an extraordinarily bright woman. She's exceptionally conscientious and has very, very good character. She will be a strong and independent voice. I expect great things from her. The public has just begun to hear about Cindy Miscikowski.

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