August 1, 2001 - From the August, 2001 issue

One Year After Charter Approval, L.A.'s New Charter Demystified

The new Charter was supposed to clarify and delineate the roles of the Mayor, Council, Controller, City Attorney, etc., but how many of us can truly say that we understand even a modicum of the changes that took affect over the last year? TPR was pleased to sit down with George Kieffer and Maryann Reyes from the Appointed Charter Commission and Mark Siegel, mindful watchdog of both the Appointed and Elected Commission, to clarify what the mainstream media hasn't: What motivated the changes proposed and later adopted in the new Charter? And did it accomplish its mission? TPR is pleased to provide the first installment of this two part roundtable demystifying L.A.'s new Charter.


George Kieffer

When announced, Charter reform promised to address L.A.'s most pressing governance issues. With that perspective, help us understand what the initial intent and objectives were that motivated the stakeholders for reform. How was that different from the mission that the Commissions assumed?

George Kieffer

The idea of reforming the Charter meant different things to different people. In light of that, we on the Appointed Charter Commission spent the first six months asking a lot of questions of the Mayor and the proponents of Charter reform re: what they thought were the problems to be addressed and what solutions, if any, they proposed.

That process helped us reach conclusions about what we wanted to do, including: adding more authority for the executive branch; more oversight for the Council; neighborhood involvement; decentralization of planning; and increased flexibility through simplification of the Charter.

Maryann Reyes

I want to echo George's comments and add that the overarching focus of this process was public participation and the clarification of the role of City officials.

In the 75 years since its initial adoption the amount of change and amendments had really forced even the most savvy and knowledgeable Angelenos to misunderstand the specific duties of positions within our City's governance structure. Because of that, many of our residents had become very disillusioned because they didn't know who in City Hall was accountable for the specific shortcomings they were concerned about. This new Charter allows both the politicians and the public to monitor our democratic process to make sure the City is operating efficiently and effectively.

Mark Siegel

The Elected Commission was much more headstrong in their approach to charter reform. They took it primarily from the point of view that the City had alienated itself from its stakeholders. They seemed to take a much more aggressive view towards reform. Their mission seemed geared towards completely overhauling the entire Charter and starting anew, rather than merely fixing what was broken.

We don't need to get into the methodology. Let's get straight to the end product. Given the objectives and mission you just outlined, how would you rank the Charter reform implementation process?

George Kieffer

I'm extremely proud of the new Charter and its wide acceptance. Furthermore, the simple fact that the City could take on such an overwhelming challenge and complete it is a success in my mind. It creates confidence in government. But governance is an ever evolving process, so we'll probably be back at it again within a relatively short time.

Mark Siegel

George is right. The Appointed Commission was very successful in accomplishing its goals. And it seems as though the City realized that as evidenced by the overwhelming support for it in last year's election.

However, its long-term effect has been heralded prematurely. Reforms are only as good as the people who are implementing them and the implementation process that was initiated by Riordan showed that. This new Mayor and Council offer us the opportunity to reevaluate our judgement of charter reform in light of a new regime helping to implement it.

George Kieffer

People do make the difference. You've always got to have good representatives. And one of the things that will become clear over time is that this Charter has the flexibility to permit representatives to truly lead.

For example, the old Charter did not allow amendments without a vote of the people. If a Mayor wanted to chart a vision for the City or make a recommendation for restructuring a Committee so that it better addressed a new set of priorities, that suggestion could get bottled up in a committee and never see the light of day.

The new Charter permits the Mayor to develop his own restructuring proposal, give it to the City Council and the Council must at least consider it within a certain time period. Of course, the reorganization could be rejected, but at least it can be viewed and scrutinized by the public. That is but one of the many changes which allow the City to function more effectively and react to evolving priorities as they surface.

Let's follow up on that last point. Some of the commentators during the reform process said that charter reform was driven by the conflict between the Mayor and the Council. But that with good leadership, consensus building skills and an ability to articulate your position on the public stage the old Charter allowed for all the kinds of leadership. Is it a matter of personalities or is the Charter really that relevant to City governance?

Maryann Reyes

The new Charter created a more agile bureaucracy and eliminated the aspects of the old Charter which harmed the city's ability to operate in a cooperative manner. As a result of the new Charter, the City can now move forward in a unified and coordinated manner and finally move beyond the personal conflicts which have held it back in the past.

George Kieffer

It's always a combination of people and the system. One of the problems with the old Charter was that there were both the reality and the perception that it inhibited the best possible government. We sought to remove those inhibitions and free the government. Some people say that effort didn't go far enough, that we should have implemented a stronger executive like that of Chicago or New York. But L.A.'s political culture doesn't support that kind of framework.

Government in L.A. is not a dinner table issue. In New York and Chicago it's on the front page, it's on television and it's always under a lot of scrutiny. Media coverage just doesn't compare here in L.A. Nor is there the same public entertainment factor. Therefore to permit a Mayor to handle issues that would otherwise be handled in public by the City Council would be inviting an abuse of power.

On the other hand, to make no change at all-which some people wanted-would have avoided responsibility in another way.

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Do those factors explain why Keith Comrie made such a fuss about how the CAO's Office was restructured, who it reported to and what interaction it had between the Council and the Mayor?

George Kieffer

Yes to a degree. In the end, we decided to make no change regarding the CAO's position and responsibilities under the new charter. There's still a misperception that it was altered because of Riordan's urging that the Office be eliminated. But in the end, the Unified Charter provided that the CAO's Office would function as an independent body, reporting to both the Council and the Mayor. We opted for a professional government instead of just a political government.

Mark Siegel

The old style of management audits in which staff from the CAO's Office would work closely with a Department's management have been transferred to the Controller's Office. That shift happened during the Riordan administration and led to the use of outside consultants to do those sorts of audits. Those audits became a farce under Riordan and were done solely for political posturing rather than actually restructuring departments for more efficient or effective operation.

Now that the management audit function has been given to the City Controller's Office, that office becomes a political office. I don't think anyone can forget the era of Ira Reiner in which he held Council phone bills and travel arrangements hostage for political gains. The structure of the current system, while it may not be abused by its current officeholder, holds the potential of politicizing the management audit function somewhere down the line.

George, there was a bold and thoughtful attempt to finally sort out the duties and responsibilities of the City Attorney's Office. What changes did and did not happen within the City Attorney's Office?

George Kieffer

There were arguments made to split the City Attorney's Office into two offices, one for criminal prosecution and the other as a corporate counsel for the municipal corporation. That concept was not accepted.

There was a second effort to clarify who speaks for the City and therefore who the City Attorney represents. The Charter attempts to answer that by directing the City Attorney to get his or her direction from the Mayor or the Council depending on what kind of issue it is.

Raphe Sonenshein, who worked with both the L.A. Charter Reform and the Pasadena Charter Reform, stated in an interview with New Schools • Better Neighborhoods that L.A.'s Charter reform sidestepped what it might have been able to do re: school reform and jurisdiction. How was it that both commissions avoided addressing the Charter's oversight of LAUSD?

George Kieffer

It was a decision to do so in a large part because the Charter's jurisdiction is so limited that we believed dealing with one aspect of the whole school district would be misleading and potentially more harmful than helpful.

The Charter simply gives authority over school board district size and school board member salary. It was our view that the school issue was a very large and complex one and that we had enough on our plate that moving into that area by either increasing salaries or changing districts would get us into a thicket of issues that we didn't have the power to address. The notion of taking a small step in a vacuum and not dealing with budgetary authority, state education laws, faculty/union relationship, hiring and firing authority, local control authority, etc. was simply unacceptable to our Commission members.

Mark Siegel

Additionally, there was no constituency that was asking the Charter commissions to address the City's jurisdiction over the District. I think the business community agreed that the school district needed to be looked at, but that this was not the forum to do it. It would have been a diversion from the mission of restructuring City governance. Not even the Mayor expressed any view. And if I recall correctly, he counseled his representatives on the elected commission to concentrate on reforming the City, not ancillary jurisdictions like the School District.

Now that I've warmed you all up, I want to go back to the beginning. As we close Part 1, let me get your reaction to a quote Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton gave in 1998 which he again endorsed in a companion interview in this issue. He said, "Quite frankly, I haven't seen either charter commission establish what's wrong with the current operations in the City, and then try to correct it with something in the Charter. Hence, lots of changes are being suggested, and lots of dividends are being attributed to doing those things." He said that in 1998, he still has those questions in 2001. What's your response?

George Kieffer

I like and respect Ron Deaton-but he's very wrong on this issue. Those who have been associated with governance for long periods of time often have a difficult time accepting the severity of the weaknesses inherent in their own system.

Making all the planning decision for a city of almost 470 square miles from one location with the same small handful of commissioners simply will not work in the future Los Angeles. Not having an institutionalized set of neighborhood councils with the opportunity for local control of some kind will not work in the Los Angeles of the 21st Century. A government of 15 separate executives will not work in the 21st Century. Redistricting out of public view will not work in the 21st Century. A Mayor's Office without appropriate authority to manage the government and make necessary organizational changes to deliver services will not work in the 21st Century. If one studies our "Road to Decision," it is fairly clear what was wrong with the then-current system. The changes adopted in the Charter addressed very clear weaknesses.

Maryann Reyes

People are always going to voice their opinions about why one thing was chosen over another and what should've or could've happened. It's just human nature that some are skeptical and want to rush to evaluate and judge the Charter's effectiveness. But we've got to allow more time and resources to become available before we make our final assessment. And I don't think now is the time to speak so critically of it.

Mark Siegel

There was a general feeling throughout the City that something needed to change, that people were alienated from City government and that the government was broken. In some cases that was intangible attitudes, in others it was simply that calls about potholes were not being returned.

Those were the feelings at the heart of Charter reform. Maybe the community had a hard time articulating the specifics of what that reform should be, but they wanted somebody to engage in a process of looking over the operations and Constitution of the City and identifying what can be done to make the City work better.

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