Voters finally elected a City Charter reform commission last week, yet there were widespread perceptions both in and out of City Hall that charter reform was dead on arrival.
Voters showed their indifference, with a near-record low turnout of 10.2 percent (the record was set in 1983, with 9 percent). And apathy is likely to be compounded by confusion; there are now two charter reform commissions, one elected by the people and one appointed by the City Council.
Both panels will now be working to draft a new charter to place on a future city ballot raising the distinct possibility that voters will be confronted by two bewildering sets of arcane changes to the city's constitution.
"If there are two competing measures, they'll both fail," said Julie Butcher, general manager of the Service Employees International Union, Local 347, which worked successfully to stack the elected commission with pro-labor candidates.
"When in doubt, voters tend to vote no," agreed Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont Graduate School. "If they're confused, they tend to vote for the status quo."
What happened to charter reform? Last year, many of the city's pundits and political leaders alike claimed that L.A. residents were desperate to overhaul the charter and to make city government more responsive to their neighborhood demands.
Indeed, Mayor Richard Riordan who put up the money to qualify a ballot measure on the charter reform commission saw charter reform as the antidote to demands for political autonomy in the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and other pockets of the city.
But ironically, the movement that Riordan started was soon hijacked by his political adversaries on the council and among the city's union leadership, political observers say.
First, the council appointed its own charter reform commission in a move Riordan partisans decried as a cynical attempt to confuse voters.
Secondly, City Hall unions backed their own slate of candidates for the elected commission a slate that dominated in the April primary and June 3 runoff elections.
"It is obvious that the mayor got the s--- kicked out of him," said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. "It's pretty clear that they got completely outmaneuvered."
Even aides to the mayor admit privately that Riordan is disappointed with how the charter reform effort has shaped up, though Riordan himself said last week that he feels the elected commission is composed of qualified people.
"I'm happy that the caliber of the candidates that were elected is very high. And certainly, whoever the candidates are whether they're pro-union, pro-mayor or just pro-city they want to see government run better," Riordan said.
But no matter how committed they themselves are, the charter reform commissions the 15-member panel elected by voters, and the 21-member panel appointed by the council must ultimately convince voters of the urgency for charter reform. And that may take some doing.
"The majority of the charter reform commissioners are labor-backed people," said Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and a leader in the San Fernando Valley secession movement. "Their goals will be strengthening job protection, higher pay, preventing privatization. They will not be that concerned about an efficient city government.
"I hope I'm wrong. If I'm not, secession will be the logical conclusion at the end of the two-year charter reform process," he said.
And Bebitch Jeffe spoke harshly both of the elected commission, which she agrees will be controlled by the city's municipal labor unions, and the appointed commission, which likely will maintain the status quo since it was formed by the sitting City Council, she said.
"Neither is representative of the citizenry of this city, and it's bogus to sell either of these commissions as representative of the greater community," she said.
Bebitch Jeffe put much of the blame on Riordan himself.
The majority of his candidates lost, she said, because his ideas about charter reform are "warm and fuzzy and convoluted" ideas about making government more efficient.
"That's white wine and brie lingo," Bebitch Jeffe said, adding that the unions were able to target the potential loss of civil service jobs as its campaign issue. "Protecting jobs and blocking privatization that's economic."
Xandra Kayden, an adjunct public policy professor at UCLA, said that she hopes to use the L.A. chapter of the League of Women Voters, of which she is incoming president, to educate homeowners, business leaders, church and synagogue groups, and service organizations about charter reform over the next two years.
"This is not an impossible task, and I've always thought of charter reform as a way to bring people together," said Kayden, who resigned from the appointed commission to compete, unsuccessfully, for the position of executive director.
Nevertheless, Kayden said she puts the odds of charter reform actually happening at less than 50-50.
"It's not doomed, but it's highly improbable," she said. "There is no guarantee at all that this is going to happen."
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