Staff Reporter

In the coming months, Angelenos are likely to be told that L.A.'s very future rests on overhauling the city charter. But while charter reform is shaping up as the political battle of 1999, it will be far from the panacea that some of its proponents once suggested.

"The charter that is emerging represents incremental reform," said Stephen Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego who closely follows L.A. city government. "It really consolidates all the various amendments that have been made over the years and makes the charter more manageable. It will improve things, but it won't fundamentally change how the city does business."

What is charter reform likely to mean? Dealing with City Hall might be a little easier, and residents might at times feel a little closer to their local government. But L.A. citizens are not likely to wake up one day and find their lives transformed.

Conversely, if charter reform fails at the polls in June, the city would not grind to a halt and businesses would not flee en masse. In fact, some observers and participants of the debate believe that many of the proposals that are now part of the charter reform measure could be reintroduced on a piecemeal basis and probably win passage.

In fact, despite frequent pitches by Mayor Richard Riordan and many members of the City Council about the need to overhaul city government, the emerging charter document from the two commissions one elected, one appointed almost seems anticlimactic.

In part, that's because one of the most far-reaching reforms elected neighborhood councils with decision-making power was jettisoned earlier this fall after intense lobbying from the business community and officials inside City Hall.

Another far-reaching reform expanding the size of the City Council is likely to be tacked on as a separate measure on the June ballot, so that it could be passed regardless of the fate of overall charter reform.

The biggest fight remaining whether to give the mayor the power to fire city managers without council approval might seem arcane to most Angelenos. With less than two weeks to go before the final votes by the two commissions, Riordan appears to be losing his battle to obtain the power to unilaterally fire department heads.

"The ability of the mayor to hire and fire department managers is several steps removed from the average citizen's concern," said L.A.-based political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. "It's going to be hard to motivate people to come out and vote for issues like this."

The same could be said for much of the rest of charter reform, like the parts dealing with city contracting and budget processes, or who can speak for the city in civil lawsuits.

Indeed, the biggest obstacle could be how to convince voters that the city's governing charter actually has relevance in their daily lives, and that it really needs fixing. That point was brought home recently when George Kieffer, chairman of the appointed charter commission, conceded that he even had difficulty explaining the need for charter reform to his wife.

Perhaps much of this was inevitable, given the city's diffuse power bases. With widely divergent and even conflicting interests, there is no consensus on what L.A. should look like, no single clear vision of the future.

"There are so many competing voices in this city that it is hard for any far-reaching proposal to succeed," Erie said. As a result, he said, "this charter gives a little something to everybody, but doesn't fully please anybody."

A joint charter reform measure that emerged this week will go back to each of the two commissions. Most of the joint measure is expected to sail through, with the possible exception of the proposal allowing a two-thirds City Council vote to block the mayor's firing of a department head. The elected commission is still divided on that one.

By early February, council members will have their say. At this point, the betting is that they will not tinker substantially with a joint measure, knowing that the elected commission could ignore the changes and put its measure directly on the ballot. Having two different charter measures on the ballot is widely regarded as a death knell for the entire effort.

Then, come June, the voters will have their say. It will take a majority vote to pass the charter reform proposal; however, with turnout expected to be less than 20 percent, anything could happen. If even one group opposes the measure, it could go down in defeat.

If it does pass, though, what will have been accomplished?

"There is no guarantee that things will change," said Erie. "There will still be a need for strong leadership to make things happen. And there is nothing in this charter that makes it inherently easier for the mayor to work with the council."

Even Kieffer concedes this point. "Charter reform is a key element in the way the city is run, but it is not the only element," he said. "It cannot substitute for electing competent representatives to public office."

Said elected commission Chairman Erwin Chemerinsky: "Charter reform can improve city government, by making it more responsive, more accountable and more efficient. But it is not by itself going to put more teachers in the classrooms or more police on the streets."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.