July 1, 2002 - From the July, 2002 issue

Schockman Reflects On Boroughs For Los Angeles:

As the former Policy Director of the elected Charter Commission for the city of L.A., Eric Schockman is quite familiar with the issues facing the current mayor/council system of governance in Los Angeles. His knowledge and interest motivated him to assist Speaker Emeritus Hertzberg in developing his borough proposal. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Eric Schockman, in which he discusses local governance and explains why boroughs offer a superior structure for municipal government in L.A.


Eric Schockman

Eric, there's a debate going on currently in Los Angeles over what can be described as the right sizing of local government. It's driven by the secession vote that's about to take place in November, but also the newest proposals for boroughs. You were Policy Director of the elected Charter Commission. What are your observations of the capacity of present local government to handle its challenges and the substance of the proposals for alternatives?

In that role, the observation of looking at right sizing government came up numerous times in our debate. The issue probably foremost, in th¡e historical perspective, was to fix a very dysfunctional 75-year-old charter, bring it up to a contemporary framework, and also deal with many of the same issues that we never totally took on. That was really the understanding of how you construct policy and governance in L.A..

The borough system to me is really the quintessential structural reform that continues charter reform in its main points. It really is the next iteration of Los Angelenos tinkering with their political system that ultimately will have a beneficial impact.

Why didn't the boroughs idea get a full-fledged discussion and debate during the charter? Were there too many other pressing matters? What are your thoughts?

There was a very cursory time we were able to devote to the borough discussion. We did bring out Ruth Messinger, who was Borough President of Manhattan. We spent a good day looking at New York and other models, and really tried to make a transfer of the New York model. That clearly is not what's happening now.

The eight times that the debate about boroughs have been put before the Los Angeles voters, we have always found that the current and contemporary politics of the time really mucks up the purity of the debate. I can just remember reading some of the transcripts and remembering some of the debates on the City Council, where the City Council in particular was annoyed and afraid of losing substantive power in reorganizing the city.

You put a lot of time and attention into assisting former Speaker Hertzberg in the development of his boroughs' proposal. What enticed you to put in the time? What contribution have you been able to make to that plan?

My pro bono desire to continue to help Los Angeles is never dampened. Mr. Hertzberg is an appropriate vehicle for energy, creativity and initiative. He brings an outside perspective that ultimately is a Los Angeles perspective. He knows the state domain, but what I was really glad to work with him on is really the sculpting of a plan to make boroughs a realistic and very substantive discussion in Los Angeles.

What are the features of that plan that the public should really pay closest attention to? Obviously boroughs is not boroughs is not boroughs.

Again, it comes down to the Jeffersonian principles of self-empowerment, localization, the rational disbursement of scarce resources-having all those things tailor-made in this borough concept really speaks to me as a carry-forth of what our Founding Fathers and Mothers wanted. That ultimately is to bring home smaller units of government without balkanizing a very great city that has a substantial contribution to make.

In the Hertzberg plan, is there constructive tension inherent to the design that balances legitimate citywide concerns with legitimate neighborhood sub-regional concerns?

There's a clear delineation in my mind of what constitutes city issues and how we need to work collectively to make sure that the NIMBY instincts in us don't pull the city's future apart. For me, regional planning and looking at a sense of what happens with our major infrastructure, those are the city domains that need that discussion on a very different level. Trash pickup, delivery of police services, parks and recreation, and libraries, those are very local domains that should and do have a greater proportionality within the borough system.

The whole concept of right sizing has to do with getting the representational formula into perspective. What these boroughs would do is bring down what now is 250-300 thousand council district membership into 82,000-voter population within a borough. That is a comparative formula with other jurisdictions that are successful. You also have greater representation, not just more politicians. The borough system emphatically says, "We will not spend more money on local governance. We will continue to hold the percentage we pay now for the governance of Los Angeles and reapportion that money."

The challenges arising to the Hertzberg plan and to some extent, that of Councilmembers Hahn, Greuel, La Bonge and others, are that each are coming too late in the game to be considered seriously. But the Hertzberg plan documents almost 90 years of debate and discussion about boroughs in Los Angeles. Are these proposals coming too late to seriously consider?

Good proposals are never too late to discuss. In my humble opinion, this is a deliverable that has the substance, the political reality, and the real carry-forth to make it a conceivable proposal within a short time to place before the voters of Los Angeles. We're not talking about something that's ill conceived, half-baked, or last minute. We're talking about a continuum that has crescendo-ed at a particular time with the right mechanisms and the right players at the table.

What I hope is that boroughs will be perceived as when William Mullholland delivered water to the San Fernando Valley and said, "Here it is. Take it."

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The Hertzberg plan has received broad support from all the newspapers in town, from labor and business groups, from the Valley and from downtown. However, it has not received much support from the City Council. That's pretty understandable, isn't it?

The discussion out in the public arena is a mile wide and an inch deep. That ultimately means that the City Council really needs to listen to the public's response to this plan. It's really the responsibility of looking within the respective council districts to listen to the policymakers and the public opinion makers to get a sense of what's going on.

The City Council ultimately has nothing else in front of it that will save 40-50% of disgruntled voters in the city. And there are legitimate concerns, again. There's a carry-forth to our initial attempts for charter reform. This is a continuation of charter reform.

Eric, you're also on the state's Little Hoover Commission. What's the state's role in realizing the ambitions and aspirations of neighborhoods and communities within cities like Los Angeles? What's the state-local relationship that has to be taken into account if we want to right size local government?

The state has its own alignment to take care of. The state has its own problems in leadership. But ultimately, in this particular case, the responsibility of the state to Los Angeles is to make sure the domain of the state and vehicles that impact Los Angeles and the city of Los Angeles, are put into harmony with where the populace is going.

Let me give you an example. I still think the Los Angeles Unified School District should be right sized within city confines. That's outside of the city domain, but it is within the empowerment of the state to move expeditiously to right size school districts that ultimately would give mayors and borough presidents more control of the educational domain of the middle class-that's the future of any city. We know from the Chicago model and the New York model, if you turn around a school district, you turn around the city.

This debate that Los Angeles is having about the right sizing of government is really taking place without much involvement from the region's academic institutions. You're a former faculty member at USC and have been involved in the local academic community. What's the disconnect here? Why isn't this civic argument infused with the research and the perspective of the universities?

First of all, we have the most stellar universities in the world in California and in Los Angeles in particular. The role of the university is really the neutral arbitrator of truth and letting truth rise to the surface. I think there's an abdication of responsibility here that somehow city governance is perceived as too political.

I remember receiving a letter recently signed by all of the university presidents in the region talking about how great the universities are, should be the engines of economic development, and should be looked to and invested in because of the role they play in the motor of economic development. It's the tail wagging the dog. If those same signatures are put onto a concerted effort to really fashion a system of governance that makes sense for the business community to thrive and for labor to thrive, and for all the communities to thrive, then we're doing a service to the city. Ultimately that dawning is slow in coming.

Students also have a great role to play in being fashioned as instruments of participation in governance organization and running and thinking. That's an untapped resource.

Lastly Eric, again in your role with the Charter Commission and your civic roles both state and locally, what is your perspective on the media's contribution to our public debates on governance? What's your perspective on how constructive the media contribution has been?

The media's role has been too late and too little in analyzing the governance of Los Angeles. To me, what I'm very concerned about is that there is no public forum. There is no place where journalists can tap the information flow from sage minds who come together on policy.

For this particular region, it's very difficult for the media to cover. It's very difficult to take leadership in setting a real cogent philosophy in your editorial side to talk about the vision of where the public is best served by the discussion at hand. But it's also in the reporting side. If I had my druthers, I'd love to see a special edition of the LA Times every Sunday have a section devoted, other than the Parade section, to a discussion on the pros and cons of boroughs, city resources, and the voices of the public which are not being served.

How about state coverage?

State coverage, for all intents and purposes, is scandals, shenanigans, and malfeasants, rather than substance of what the sixth most powerful nation-state in the world is doing.

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