A Nuts and Bolts Plan for Reforming LA City Government You Can Believe In

GELFAND’S WORLD--We used to talk about ethical and structural reform within the city of Los Angeles. We've been distracted for the past year, but someday we will get back to thinking about fixing what ails us at the local level. Hey, we could even take up local reform while we're waiting for the mess in DC to pass. How could reform actually be made to happen at the citywide level? 

Here's one hint -- it doesn't depend on begging the City Council to do the right thing

It turns out that the City of Los Angeles has provisions for doing ballot initiatives, much as we have at the statewide level. Just like the statewide system, you need to collect a certain number of signatures on petitions, and if you do, your initiative will go on the ballot. 

A Surprisingly Low Bar 

You can download a summary of requirements on the City Clerk's website. Depending on the type of initiative, the magic number depends on either the number of registered voters in the city of Los Angeles or the number of votes cast in the last mayoral election. It sounds a little complicated, but it's really quite simple and the numbers are easy to find. 

The number of registered voters in the city of Los Angeles is just a little over two million people (this obviously varies from day to day, but not by much). This will come into the calculation for doing a Charter amendment. 

The total votes cast for all the mayoral candidates combined in the last election (2017) was 407,147. This number obviously doesn't change until we have another mayoral election. It will factor into getting an initiative on the ballot that will create a new law. 

Just for fun, let's consider that reform I talked about last year. Yes, I'm talking about reducing the cost of parking tickets. I'm also talking about reforming the currently corrupt rules that allow for ticketing after the street sweepers go by, not to mention the way that the city confuses us by stacking signs a yard high. Would you sign your name to a petition to limit parking tickets to $23? 

It turns out that the number of required signatures is surprisingly low. As long as we are limiting ourselves to passing an ordinance (not an amendment to the city Charter), we only need to have 15% of that mayoral vote. The required total comes to 61,072 signatures. We could probably get that many signatures in an afternoon. Well, maybe in a couple of weeks worth of afternoons. 

The Grand Strategy 

If you are a serious thinker, you will want to consider other reforms. Here are a few possibilities: 

Reduce the outrageously high salaries of City Council members 

Take unrestricted local decision-making away from individual City Council members (you'd be surprised at how much unbridled power they have on local issues) and create boards of 3 members. In other words, create the equivalent of a smaller, more controlled borough system) 

Repair the ethically corrupt campaign finance system. 

Maybe fix the neighborhood council system while we're at it. 

The grand strategy is simple -- do all of the reforms at one time. It's actually easier this way. Instead of stringing reform out piecemeal -- and thereby taking decades to get things done -- just do it in one fell swoop. At least that's my take on the process. I suspect that the voters of LA would consider a comprehensive reform package just as easily as they would consider a single ballot measure that is frustratingly limited. 

There is one complication, but it has a solution. The problem is that you can't put one enormous initiative on the ballot. Each citizen sponsored initiative is limited to one topic. That means that we might have to qualify half a dozen initiatives instead of one. That's the grand strategy -- do it all at once. The only additional difficulty from the technical side is that your petition gatherers have to explain that they are asking you to sign all the petitions rather than just one. 

Charter Amendment Petitions 

There is one serious impediment. If you want to change the city's Charter (analogous at the local level to amending the U.S. Constitution), you need a lot more signatures. Technically, the requirement is 15% of the number of registered voters in the city. Using current registration numbers, the requirement for petition signatures is 305,000. That seems like a lot of signatures, and it is. But we have one more element of the grand strategy to help us deal with it. 

The Grand Strategy, Part B 

At the statewide level, lots of ballot initiatives show up without much advance warning. We are faced with making decisions on barely understandable things that may or may not be bad for us. Buried in the small print, there might be wording to give the oil companies free rein to drill right off the coast, or to allow developers to violate our zoning rules. The state's voters have developed a commendable skepticism about ballot initiatives that just appear out of the blue. We've learned to ignore the hype and vote No. 

We should assume that the same principle holds for local ballot initiatives. People need to feel that they understand what is on the ballot. Given such understanding, they also have to agree with the basic principle for each initiative. 

So here's the proposed procedure: Let's first have a public discussion about what specific reforms we want to see, and then let's make writing each initiative a public process. Let's give people the chance to look forward to seeing their favorite proposals on the ballot. They will vote for reform if they are offered a chance to participate in the drafting. They will tell their families and friends to join them in voting Yes. 

The road to reform begins with inviting the public to participate in the design and development. If the majority of participants think that parking tickets should be more than $23, then the reform alliance should reconsider my proposal. If the reform alliance can't be convinced to support full public financing of City Council elections, then this will have to be omitted from the package. But with intelligence and effort, we may have a chance to develop a reform package that has a chance of being passed on election day. 

Given these elements -- public participation in picking the topics and public participation in writing the proposed laws -- the remainder of the work is straightforward. We need a million or two dollars to cover the minimal costs of paying signature gatherers and doing advertising. In the run up to the election, we would need to raise more money for additional advertising, but that is a chore that should be started during the first phase. 

By the way, this might turn out to be a bipartisan effort. The conservatives are not happy with the way Los Angeles is run and they might consider the reform alliance a chance to insert some real reforms of their own choosing. Perhaps a multifaceted movement will take up Jack Humphreville's Live Within its Means Charter amendment. If I can talk Jack into supporting full public financing of elections in a borough system, maybe he can talk me into supporting Live Within its Means. 

It's worth a try.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net