Only once in the past 12 years have more than 40 percent of registered voters in the city of Los Angeles turned out for a city election the 1993 mayoral runoff between Richard Riordan and Michael Woo.
The historically low voter turnout is one of the reasons that a change in the election system is being considered as part of the rewrite of the 72-year-old City Charter, which serves as L.A.'s constitution.
"This sounds like a simple question," said George Kieffer, an attorney who chairs the Charter Reform Commission appointed by the L.A. City Council. "But once you get into it, it raises many questions."
Among the questions the commission will consider during two hearings on the city's election system this month are:
- Should there be at-large seats on the City Council or on the Board of Education?
- Should the size of the City Council or the Board of Education be increased?
- Should city elections be moved to even-numbered years to coincide with state and national elections?
On the last question, Kieffer said there are two views on the issue.
"People who want to make that change argue that it will bring a greater voter participation," he said. "People who oppose it argue that even if there are more people voting, there will be less people knowing what they are voting about in regard to city issues."
Kieffer heads one of the two commissions studying the reform of the City Charter. His panel is conducting public hearings on 10 major charter issues, including possible changes in the city's election system.
The other commission, which was elected by voters, is not expected to hold public hearings until January.
Among the more contentious issues in changing the city's election process, Kieffer said, are whether there should be members of the City Council and Board of Education who are elected by the city at large.
If two or three at-large members were added to the City Council, Kieffer said, there could be "more of a city-wide perspective to council decisions rather than 15 more parochial views."
But, Kieffer said, state law requires that city councils be ethnically representative of their cities, and at-large elections may raise legal questions.
One proponent of an increase in the council size is Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who authored a recently approved bill allowing an increase in the size of the Board of Education by charter reform.
"I'm predisposed to having more council members and much smaller districts," Hertzberg said, adding that he would like to see L.A. have a borough system similar to the one in New York. In such governmental systems, elected officials represent a much smaller number of people.
"Every place where that happens, government seems to work better," Hertzberg said.
Any rewrite of the City Charter by Kieffer's commission is subject to revision by the City Council, and then must receive voter approval. The elected commission is also drafting a rewrite of the charter, and its rewrite will go directly to voters for approval.
Next week: Should the City Charter provide for neighborhood councils?
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