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By HOWARD FINE

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."

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