June 1, 2002 - From the June, 2002 issue

Siegel Supports Boroughs: More Suited To L.A. Than NYC

In order to truly understand any proposal for a boroughs-style government, one must consider the New York City experience. For many Los Angeleans, the only viable framework by which the City's governance structure can be positively changed while avoiding secession is a boroughs system of government. In order to learn how NYC's boroughs fared and to gain insight on the merits of Hertzberg's boroughs proposal, The Planning Report interviewed historian Fred Siegel, author of "The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A. and the Fate of America's Big Cities" and professor of history at Cooper Union College in Manhattan.

Many people following the matter of how best to govern the city of Los Angeles refer to boroughs as a third way, but then caution that New York has basically abandoned boroughs. Please give us your thoughts on the role that boroughs might play in governing the regional city we call Los Angeles.

New York has in effect abandoned borough government. One reason borough government didn't work in New York is that Manhattan so outweighs the other boroughs that, invariably, it became totally dominant and the interests of the other boroughs were ignored. So while we had a borough system in principle, in practice we have had a highly centralized system.

Los Angeles has a better chance of making a borough system work because you have no Manhattan. You have areas of affluence and economic concentration, but they are not coterminous as they are here in New York. Given the kind of distribution of influence and interests you have, [L.A. has] a better chance, as a city, to make boroughs work.

Los Angeles seems to me like a regional city, which New York is as well. They really are almost the size of a small region. Recognizing that most people already look at this as a area government, you want to try to figure out how to make such a government work.

How do you distribute to localities that range of government activities, which could best be handled at a local level, which will provide for citizen involvement? When boroughs worked at their best in New York, they gave people a sense of collective identity, which was not based on race, religion or ethnicity.

Elaborate. What is it about Los Angeles that makes it a better candidate for governing through boroughs than New York?

Boroughs in New York once had a fairly wide range of functions. For example, the library system in New York is not citywide. Queens has its own library system, and it is far and away the best in New York. It provides a certain amount of competition within the city and a much higher degree of accountability. Your officials are not so far away, literally or figuratively.

Unfortunately, the boroughs have a very bad reputation in New York because they were hot beds of corruption. When New York merged in 1898, the political parties of each of the boroughs did not merge. So the party system here has always been separate from government. The boroughs became an outlet for party patronage.

That said, when boroughs did street cleaning or garbage collection, they worked better. Some of those aspects of city government that work best in New York, or have improved, have been centralized on a borough basis parks, for instance. There are certain functions that are best performed on a borough basis. [They are] large enough to provide certain economies of scale, and small enough to be responsive [to civic needs], such as parks, libraries, quality of life enhancements, certain kinds of code enforcements, street repair.

These things can be best provided on a borough basis, particularly if you create coterminous electoral districts, so the electoral districts for the Assembly, State Senate, Congress fit into borough ones. It gives people a sense of identity, of connectedness that you don't have with a jumble of lines, when the lines are so wildly overlapping as to be incoherent.

Before continuing with a discussion of boroughs, elaborate on why LA's present form of local government is without any virtues? What is failing?

Because it leaves people in large sections of the city with a feeling that they are unconnected, that they're not tied in any way to a common enterprise. There's no civic identity in Los Angeles under this form of government. That's enormously dysfunctional in the long run. We haven't seen fully what this new charter will mean because Mayor Hahn has not exercised his powers yet. But even so, it's hard to imagine, given the geographic scope of Los Angeles, the diversity of its interests and populations, that a unified government could be made to work.

New York works today only because we once had a borough system and we had an extraordinary leader. You're not going to get a Rudy Giuliani every year as mayor. Los Angeles has no reason to expect it and we have no reason to expect it again here in New York. You can't count on that.

Recently you were in an exchange on "Which Way, L.A.?" with former L.A. Charter Commission Chair Erwin Chemerinsky. In that discussion, Erwin basically wrote off the concept of boroughs, suggesting, though he got no confirmation from anybody else, that it had been fully discussed during the charter discussions. What do you think the core of Erwin's complaint is? How do you respond?

This may be unfair on my part, but from what I've read of Erwin, he has a kind of ACLU view of the world, in which he wants an undifferentiated mass of people subject to over-weaning law. There is a touch, not too strong, of the anti-Democrat in Erwin. He's a legal royalist to some extent. I think this kind of politics makes him uncomfortable. Again, I don't know him well enough, but from what I've read, that's what I see.

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Fred, for those who have been caught up recently with John Adams and the Founding Fathers' interest in the architecture of our republican form of government, does the borough system promise a better chance of balancing the tension between citywide interests and very neighborhood-centric local interests than does LA's current Mayor / Council configuration? How does one best create constructive tension in local government over the allocation of resources and attention?

It's a good analogy with the Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers tried to create mechanisms whereby local interests would clash, and out of that clash of local interests would emerge the general interest. The way it was supposed to work in New York was like this. You had a Board of Estimate, which represented each of the boroughs. The mayor or the controller also sat on the Board of Estimate. Especially in land use it often did work well. When it worked well, what you had was a tradeoff between local interests and the city interest. If my district was going to get a waste treatment facility, it would also get additional parks or school district money. As I said before, in New York, this was sabotaged and capsized by the strength of Manhattan.

You should be able to make this work in Los Angeles because, without explicitly describing the tradeoffs, you create a mechanism where they can be implicitly laid out. You don't have to endlessly go to court over each and every decision people don't like locally. It's a way of reducing NIMBYism by increasing representation and the possibilities of people making legitimate trades-you get more of this, you get less of that. If local voters don't like the way the borough president handles those tradeoffs, the borough president can be replaced.

How does state-local fiscal policy, term limits, or the initiative process affect the ability of locally elected government to be the representative architects of their constituents' future?

Let me just focus on the impact of term limits on local government. To the extent that term limits create short-term political positions that people don't get to know their representatives, it could be problematic. Term limits, I think, were ill conceived. The reason was not because there wasn't a problem with incumbents for life, but it was because the solution to that problem is drawing competitive boundaries. As the boundaries are now drawn, they are designed not to be competitive. It was the wrong solution to a genuine problem.

Hopefully, what will happen, even with term limits, is that people will develop a local identity. What you'll get, to go back to the Founding Fathers, is the screening process. The Founding Fathers' idea was that you start off as a local assemblyman and you represent a limited set of interests. As you rose in state government, then national government, as you rose through the levels of national government, which you get with a borough system, you have a filter. We get to watch someone operate on different levels of government, evaluate their judgment, then we have a basis to think about them as mayor. By and large, it's a system that has served us extremely well compared to the centralized systems of Europe.

What is the national significance, if any, of the current debate taking place in L.A. over secession and the vote that will occur in November over cityhood for the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood?

If L.A. breaks up, it will be seen, fairly or not, in racial and ethnic terms. I don't think that's entirely accurate, but if we look at how The New York Times is likely to cover it, that's what it will be. If you put together a borough system, if you hold off secession by producing something better as opposed to simply staying together in smoldering discontent, you will be seen as having provided a way in which different ethnic and racial interests can maintain a certain degree of comity, without having to break apart.

How should the press and commentators cover and report on the right sizing of government debate in Los Angeles? What are the useful meta-narratives, the critical benchmarks, the sources of information for someone like you, who must follow our citywide debate from 3,000 miles away?

I want to know what it is that is driving the dissatisfaction with City Hall. The coverage of local issues in Los Angeles is very poor. There's much less coverage devoted to local matters. In New York now, we have five dailies. You have one and a half dailies in Los Angeles, as The Daily News doesn't really try to cover the whole city. With five dailies, even in a city as large as New York, local issues are constantly being reported. The papers compete with each other in a certain way.

I don't know how you're going to stimulate that in Los Angeles. Maybe KCRW could help with "Which Way, L.A.?" I was very sympathetic to Riordan when he talked about starting a new newspaper. The problem is Riordan seems to be absolutely closed-minded on the question of maintaining Los Angeles as it is, which may doom the possibilities of a new newspaper.

Lastly, since Assembly Speaker Emeritus Hertzberg has sought out your policy advice before releasing his detailed boroughs plan for L.A. City government, can you share with our readers the advice you offered?

Aside from the mechanics, you need to present this as a kind of political poetry. It needs a preamble, a statement of principles. What is it that borough government is trying to accomplish? What kind of identity for Angelenos are you looking for? That's what I would talk about on the general level. It can't be simply sold as mechanics. It has to be sold as part of a founding vision. I think it's there, implicit in the document.

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