If you want to get an idea of how tough it's going to be to pass charter reform in L.A., just listen to George Kieffer.
"Every night my wife comes home and says, 'You haven't yet told me why you care about this charter,' " he said. "It's hard to explain."
If Kieffer, who chairs one of the city's two charter reform commissions, has difficulty explaining charter reform to his wife, then convincing hundreds of thousands of Angelenos to go to the polls next June and check off the "Yes" box is sure to be an uphill battle.
Making matters worse, it's now becoming likely that there will be two competing charter reform measures on the ballot, each containing hundreds of pages and making it the largest ballot in city history.
Such a turn of events would be a prescription for voter confusion, and apathy.
"With the prospect of multiple proponents and opponents, my fear is that the public will be so overwhelmed and confused by detail that they won't know which proposal to support," said political consultant Richard Lichtenstein. "Emotions that will be generated by the competing charter measures could result in voters rejecting all the reforms."
Xandra Kayden, president of the L.A. League of Women Voters and UCLA senior public policy fellow, said the prospects for charter reform began fading when two separate commissions were created.
"What has been missing from the outset is an answer to the question, 'What is the reason for charter reform?' Most people don't understand what city functions are and how they are affected by them," she said.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. When Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and civic leaders launched the charter reform effort three years ago, their hope was to come up with a proposal that would simplify the government structure and make city leaders more accountable.
Last week, a proposal was indeed released by the Appointed Charter Reform Commission. The 337-page, two-volume document calls for expanding the City Council to 21 members, creating three to seven area planning boards with power over local land-use decisions, and setting up advisory neighborhood councils. It would also exempt top managers in departments from civil service and give the mayor more power to organize his or her staff.
The proposal must still be approved by the council before it can be put on the June ballot. It is expected to go to the council's Rules and Elections Committee chaired by council President John Ferraro in January.
But, paradoxically, the proposal could actually reduce the prospects of charter reform. That's because the Elected Charter Reform Commission is set to release its own draft plan early next month, and that proposal is likely to conflict with the appointed commission's proposal in several key areas, from the size of the City Council to the division of powers between the mayor and council. (The Elected Commission's proposal can go straight to the ballot, without petitions or City Council approval.)
With the prospect of dueling initiatives ending up on the ballot, it could be tough to build a consensus.
"On most local ballot issues like this, voters are usually receptive to a campaign that has a broad spectrum of leaders supporting it," Lichtenstein said. "But here, the leadership has not come together. Instead, it has fractured. You have the mayor supporting the elected commission's proposal, the City Council probably lining up behind the appointed commission, the business community with its own separate agenda, and the unions split. This all adds to the confusion."
Indeed, the business community has not lined up behind either plan. Instead, the major downtown business groups the Central City Association, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and Los Angeles Business Advisors have come out for increasing the size of the council and against any proposal that would give neighborhood councils decision-making power over land-use issues.
But the Valley Industry and Commerce Association will only support charter reform if it gives neighborhood councils decision-making power over land-use issues. Neither commission has endorsed that idea.
The city's employee unions especially the Service Employees International Union have lined up with the City Council and support the Appointed Charter Reform Commission's proposals. They do not want the mayor to have unilateral power to fire department heads. But the building trades, which favor stronger central authority, have voted to support the Elected Charter Reform Commission's proposals.
If history is any guide, charter reform has little chance of passing if the proposals by both commissions end up on the ballot. Competing ballot measures are often defeated.
In 1996, for example, three tort reform measures put on by various business and insurance groups Propositions 200, 201 and 201 all went down after trial lawyers dubbed them the "Terrible 200s" and mounted an all-out campaign. Then in November, Propositions 207 and 211, also both dealing with tort reform, were both defeated.
Appointed commission Chairman Kieffer agreed that getting consensus for a single proposal is crucial for success. Without that, he said, voters are likely to throw up their hands and either stay away from the polls or vote "no."
"You need to find a consensus of support to sell to the voters," Kieffer said.
For several months, a joint committee of members from both commissions has been attempting to come up with a compromise plan.
Last week, agreement was reached on several lower-priority items, such as giving the City Controller's Office authority to audit departments, giving the mayor authority to transfer funds between departments, and setting up a procedure to redraw council district lines.
But most of the major disagreements remain, as pressure on each commission intensifies to stick to their own proposals.
"The elected and appointed commissions disagree on almost every major issue," Elected Charter Reform Commission Chairman Erwin Chemerinsky said last week. "We have a long road ahead of us if we are going to come up with a joint proposal."
Among the major differences between the two plans:
? The elected commission gives the mayor the power to unilaterally fire department heads, while the appointed commission keeps the current system under which the City Council must approve any department-head firing.
? The elected commission would give the mayor authority to initiate litigation and reach settlements; the appointed commission would keep that authority with the City Council, where it now rests.
? The elected commission would eliminate the budgetary functions of the city administrative officer, transferring them to the mayor and controller; the appointed commission would essentially keep the city administrative officer's functions intact.
? The appointed commission would increase the size of the City Council from the current 15 to 21 members; the elected commission's main proposal would keep the current 15 members but would add a separate amendment to the ballot that would increase the council to 25 members.
Despite all the differences, it's too early to write off charter reform altogether. But unless a leader or group of leaders emerges who can articulate why charter reform is needed, it will be a long, uphill battle.
So far, no such leader has emerged. The most obvious candidate would be Riordan. But when he supported giving the mayor's office the power to fire city department heads without council approval, he came under attack from City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie and city employee unions, who said Riordan was attempting a power grab. Ultimately, Riordan lost out to the CAO and the unions in front of the Appointed Charter Reform Commission, which withdrew its proposal to give the mayor unilateral firing power.
Other potential leaders, perhaps looking at what happened to Riordan, have not come forward. Potential mayoral candidates like L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Council members Joel Wachs and Laura Chick, and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa have been silent on charter reform.
Yet another factor threatening to kill the effort is the chance that an interest group opposed to one or both proposals might mobilize its rank and file to vote "no." In what is expected to be a low-turnout election, such a mobilization could sink the charter reform effort.
Already, homeowner's groups and supporters of the San Fernando Valley secession movement have said they will oppose any measure that does not create neighborhood councils with the power to decide land-use issues.
In addition, some union leaders notably Service Employees International Union local chief Julie Butcher have gone on record as opposing the elected commission's plan to give the mayor unilateral power to fire department heads. Riordan has lobbied hard for such power. Both commissions initially endorsed the idea, but the appointed commission reversed itself and sided with city employee unions.
Kieffer said that the issue of who has the power to fire department heads could "doom" the whole charter reform effort.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.