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Commentary

Commentary/21″/lk1st/mike2nd BY TONY LUCENTE The ink is not yet dry on the appointed and elected charter reform commissions’ drafts of L.A.’s new city charter. Yet some business organizations, homeowner groups and even some media outlets already are placing bets on whether voters will approve a new city charter. It seems that many groups place the odds squarely against voter approval. Well, as one Angeleno who thinks the city has more to gain than lose from real charter reform, I don’t think that “all the bets are off” for a successful reform process. Despite the continuing controversy over issues such as mayoral power and neighborhood councils, both commissions have agreed on key changes that will make city government more efficient, responsive and inclusive. To start, if adopted, the changes would result in a charter that will once again, in principle, resemble the 1925 charter a 100-page document outlining general principles of governance. Over the years, that document has ballooned into an unwieldy 600-page handbook detailing rule after rule for city operations that can only be changed by popular vote. The changes being proposed by both panels don’t meet the desires of every special-interest group. But they certainly get the city back on track toward a government with greater accountability. Regrettably, some of the thumbs-down constituents have the opinion that the new charter simply maintains the status quo. This simply isn’t true. The draft proposals provide for sweeping changes in government accountability and neighborhood participation. Take government accountability. Nearly everyone agrees that L.A.’s current government structure doesn’t give the mayor enough power to operate as a “chief executive” and that the council is forever micromanaging everything it get its hands on. The new charter addresses these issues by clearly defining the powers and responsibilities of the mayor, city council, city attorney, controller and other key positions. Significantly, both proposals strengthen the role of the mayor. The appointed commission gives the mayor authority to hire and fire all city commissioners and general managers, subject to city council approval; the elected commission gives the mayor the power outright. Many, including Mayor Riordan, think it’s only common sense that the mayor should have full executive power, while others fiercely defend the council’s veto as essential to retaining balance of power in the city. A compromise proposal to give the mayor the authority subject to a two-thirds vote of the council is now being discussed. The new charter also contains many common-sense proposals such as moving hundreds of items, like the city’s contracting and purchasing processes, out of the charter into city ordinances. This will provide our city officials more flexibility in managing contracts and reforming contracting processes. These changes alone will improve government’s decision making and save precious tax dollars as city practices will be able to be changed without placing every item on the ballot, which has a sizable cost attached to it. These are examples of substantive changes which should not be overlooked. Besides the hiring/firing authority of the mayor, perhaps the toughest issue is that of increased community participation. Despite intense pressure, both commissions tackled this issue head on first, by adopting recommendations to expand the city council, and then by creating regional planning commissions in addition to a citywide commission. The latter brings planning and land-use decision making closer to communities and is an alternative to direct land-use decision-making authority through elected neighborhood councils a divisive and costly proposal that by itself could doom prospects for charter reform approval. The commissions also recommend the formation of neighborhood councils not elected by public vote, with advisory, as opposed to final decision-making authority. Supported by a new city Department of Neighborhoods to further community participation, both charter reform commissions decided against becoming the first city in the country to implement elected councils while still providing for neighborhood councils, which would give residents a voice in everything from planning to city services and budget matters. Of course, regardless of the progress made, some businesses and homeowners alike continue to be outright opposed to all charter reform unless their specific recommendation for change is adopted. But special agendas aside, the commissions’ charter proposals bring real constitutional change to Los Angeles and to governance within our city. When tied to the creation of neighborhood councils, regional planning commissions, and a slightly expanded city council, the new charter also looks like a sound foundation for increased neighborhood empowerment something greatly desired by the entire populace. Are advisory neighborhood councils and a marginally expanded city council enough to quench the fires fueling Valley secession or secession thoughts in other communities? Does the current charter reform proposal go far enough in addressing businesses’ desire for a streamlined, more business-friendly city government? That remains to be seen. Genuine obstacles to the adoption of a new city charter still remain. But as we approach the new millennium, the charter reform proposals from both commissions warrant careful consideration by the business community and city residents. Both proposals make great strides toward better L.A. city government that will benefit us all. Tony Lucente is president of the Studio City Residents Association.

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