Mon, Jun

How To Force Reform in LA City Government


GELFAND’S WORLD - Here's the two-sentence summary: We can win real reform by doing it ourselves. Don't expect any help from the City Council or the Mayor.

One more thing: The hardest part will be deciding exactly what it is we want to do. 

And finally: If you want to join the project, reply to the email address at the bottom of the page. 

If you are interested, then let me flesh out the details, starting with one observation: It's interesting that the voters of Los Angeles are way ahead of the activists. They showed this in our recent elections. Just being an incumbent was an electoral death sentence. We should expect to see the next group of City Council representatives dither and dawdle on reform. After all, why should people elected to power and huge salaries want to give those things away? 

What we propose here involves City Council members losing two-thirds of their power and three quarters of their salaries. They're not going to like it. They will resist. 

But there is a way to force the issue and create true change in the city of Los Angeles. The way we do it is to put five or six initiatives on the city ballot. It isn't easy to do this, but it isn't impossible either. Allow me to take a couple of paragraphs to explain exactly how it can be done. Our ability to make this happen depends only on whether we want it enough

Winning reform depends on small things happening one after the other. 

First, we need to convince people that it is possible to reform our city. We will do this through an outreach campaign in advance of everything else we do. 

And that means creating an advertising program. When I first thought about this plan, I figured that we could do the advertising for a couple of million dollars. Now, having watched how much money was spent on the mayor's race, I've recalculated a bit. I think we can imagine doing this for 4 or 5 million dollars. 

Where will the outreach money come from? My view is that we find one or two deep-pockets donors who are interested in real change. I notice that one guy was willing to spend a hundred million dollars out of his own pocket to do a lot less change. Maybe that same guy or somebody with similarly deep pockets would fund a true grassroots movement. It's worth asking. 

OK -- so the first object is to tell the people of Los Angeles that they are going to change things, if only they are willing to be a part of it. They will be asked to donate ten minutes of their time to the plan, and they will be able to do that by going to the supermarket any day during a six-month period. We will have volunteer signature gatherers at the supermarkets (and other places). Here's the gimmick: Each person is asked to sign all of the 5 or 6 petitions, one after the other. You can certainly fill out five or six petitions in ten or twelve minutes. Then you are done with your part of the program, at least until election day. 

But what sort of reform do we want? 

It's an equally important part of the process to figure out what constitutes true reform, and what legal wording needs to go into each ballot initiative. 

I would like to propose an initial process in which we collect proposals from any and all of you, sort them through, and see how we can develop a logically coherent set of changes that work together. 

Here are a few possibilities that we've already talked about in these pages: 

1) Raise the size of the city council to at least twice its current number, but better yet more like three times. 

2) As part of this process, we lower the salary for each City Council member to $49,000. This way, the money won't be the major motivation, and the taxpayers will save money over what they currently pay our City Council. 

3) Create an independent process for redistricting those City Council seats. Notice that with 3 or 4 times as many City Council seats, it is actually easier to do redistricting without the kind of vicious infighting we saw in the last go-around. 

But these are just 3 worthy changes. What else could we do? 

I can think of several possibilities, ranging from getting rid of the current system of commissions, redesigning the neighborhood council system, and figuring out how to do land use decisions that are based on real world issues. For example, we will need to deal with the inevitable reduction in the number of gasoline powered cars and the need for long term electrical supply improvements. What do these changes imply in terms of the way governmental services will have to be delivered? We should be figuring that out. 

We would have to imagine the changes to make, and then once imagined, figure out how to squeeze all of the proposals into 5 or 6 ballot initiatives. 

So the proposal involves a series of discussions and meetings to hear and discuss possible changes in Los Angeles city government, and out of those suggestions, coming up with a final proposal. 

Here's the big change: We won't do this by committee 

That's right. You won't hear me suggesting that the neighborhood councils appoint another committee or (God forbid) the City Council members and/or the mayor appoint people. I've watched this process get used -- again and again -- over the past twenty years, and it hasn't helped. If anyone cares to debate it, I am more than willing to discuss my own experiences. I would guess that the majority of people reading this would agree with me. 

So how will we figure out what to do? 

I do have an idea. 

OK, it is a little different and, I must admit, even a little self serving, but that's only because an esteemed colleague of mine suggested that I volunteer my services. You see, we did something like this a while back, and it worked pretty well. 

So here goes: 

I will meet with any and all of you. (But first I have to buy a digital recorder.) You will talk and I will listen and record. You can bring your own collection of proposed City Charter amendments, or you can bring summaries and descriptions, or we can just talk. But at the end of the discussion, we will agree on specific language for your proposals, and those proposals will become part of the record. 

Let's imagine a simple example: "The City Council will be expanded to 45 seats, with 22 seats up for election on presidential election years and 23 seats up for reelection on midterm election years, with the term of office remaining 4 years. In the election year immediately following the adoption of this amendment, all 45 seats will be up for election, with assignment of two-year terms for even numbered council districts and 4-year terms for odd number council districts, and all terms thereafter to be 4 years." 

So yes, I am volunteering to be the Secretary of this program. Depending on how many participants there are, and how much interest we find, the developmental part of the program could go on for six months. 

I would like to point out that there are a couple of significant differences between how this program would be carried out, compared to the way the typical ballot initiative campaign is carried out. 

First, and I would like to point out how serious an important this principle is, we will not be lying to the public about what is in our petitions. Quite to the contrary, we will be telling people in advance what is in the petitions, and we will be telling them just when and how they will be able to join the program by signing. 

The second major difference between our project and what the politicians do is even simpler. We will not be taking up time and raising phony issues just to stall things. We are out to make change, and to do so as quickly and efficiently as possible. The politicians do something very different. They are in the business of making sure that their biggest donors are well served. We are going to be slightly different, in that we aim to serve the combined interests of the largest majority -- the greatest good for the greatest number. 

We will not be presenting ballot initiatives that have been written in secret and tailored to the vested interests and to the wants of the very few. We will filter our proposed Charter amendments through careful analysis which will include attorneys, your neighbors, and even people with experience in city government. Raphe and Greg, I would like to see you two have a look-see at the first draft of the proposals. 

So yes, you caught me there -- there will be a committee of a sort to vet the proposals. It just won't be the kind of committee that is appointed by elected officials or neighborhood councils. We've seen how those function, and rocking the boat is exactly what they don't do. The committee members appointed by politicians are there just to make sure that nothing of substance is allowed to pass. We will be different, and in so doing, hope to make a difference. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].) 


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