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.


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