Staff Reporter

Now that it appears likely a single charter reform measure will end up on the June ballot, proponents face the daunting task of selling the measure to voters.

Several obstacles stand in the way: Voter turnout is expected to be low, charter reform is tremendously complex, and an opposition campaign might be mounted by secession advocates in the San Fernando Valley.

"This is not a sexy issue that by itself is going to drive people to the polls," said Matt Klink, director of political campaigns for L.A.-based Cerrell & Associates, which has run several local campaigns, including last fall's successful city zoo bond measure. "It's going to take lots of money at least $1 million or $2 million a clear, concise message and a concerted effort to get out the vote."

Local campaign consultants said likely funding sources for the charter reform campaign will be local businesses, labor unions and the wealthy friends of Mayor Richard Riordan.

Garnering widespread support from the city's political, business and labor establishment is essential.

"The efforts on controversial issues which have succeeded in the past have generally had a very diverse, geographically balanced core support group," said Richard Lichtenstein, a political consultant and president of L.A.-based Marathon Communications Inc. "You need to bring as many people into the tent as possible."

Once opinion leaders are "in the tent," getting voters to check yes on their ballots will be easier because "the campaign literature will show endorsements from all these groups," said Appointed Charter Reform Commission Chairman George Kieffer. "This is similar to how bond-issue campaigns are run: The public will see how broad the support is and will be more inclined to support it themselves."

Most important, Klink and Lichtenstein said, is leadership in the campaign from Riordan.

"The extent to which the mayor is engaged will help charter reform pass," Klink said. "He is very popular in the San Fernando Valley and can persuade a lot of the voters there to come to polls. Just as important is his ability to raise significant amounts of money."

Riordan was in Curitiba, Brazil last week, looking at that city's busway system, and was unavailable for comment. Spokesman Dean Leavenworth said the mayor will continue using the bully pulpit to explain the need for charter reform. He noted that Riordan campaigned vigorously to win voter approval for Proposition 8, which created the Elected Charter Reform Commission.

One key to the measure's passage will be getting support from organized labor.

In municipal elections with no contest for mayor as is the case this year voter turnout tends to be in the 15 percent to 20 percent range. And labor has had a knack for getting out the vote. It did just that by mobilizing voters to defeat Proposition 226 and elect a Democratic slate last November.

"If the unions come on board strongly, they could get out the vote, which would be a huge plus," Klink said.

Until just recently, labor was divided on charter reform. The building trades supported Riordan in his quest to give the mayor unilateral power to fire department heads, while the Service Employees International Union and other city employee unions opposed that provision.

But with Riordan deciding to compromise on the mayoral firing power, the unions are now on board, according to Elected Charter Reform Commission Executive Director Geoffrey Garfield.

With the expectation of low voter turnout, any campaign effort will focus on those most likely to vote and the most effective way to reach those voters is targeted mail and phone campaigns.

A large portion of whatever funds are raised for the campaign will likely be devoted to educating these high-propensity voters on why charter reform is important. Unlike other hot-button issues like crime or health care, charter reform is not an issue with which most people can easily identify.

Elected Charter Reform Commission Chairman Erwin Chemerinsky said the way to do this is to pick out a few themes and hammer them home.

"The problem is not that nobody has heard about the city charter. That's not true, because I'm constantly running into people who ask me about it," Chemerinsky said. "The problem is that for many people, they have the vague sense that city government does not work, but don't exactly know why."

So a campaign that focuses on these issues and how the charter proposal would address them would stand a good chance of succeeding, Chemerinsky said.

Another potential pitfall is that opposition to the charter proposal could form. Already, there has been some grumbling from some civic leaders in the San Fernando Valley and other areas of the city that support secession. They say the charter proposal does not represent real reform because it would not create neighborhood councils with substantial land-use and budgetary authority.

The key question is whether that grumbling will coalesce into an opposition campaign that pours funds into defeating the charter proposal. That's what happened in 1970, the last time a charter overhaul measure made the ballot. A group that included several Department of Water and Power commissioners raised about $100,000, which was enough to defeat the measure.

However, that earlier charter reform measure was developed behind closed doors, and the issues were not aired publicly before it was put on the ballot. Proponents were then blindsided by the unexpected opposition and were unable to counter it.

"With this proposal, all of the issues have been intensely debated in public hearings for 18 months. There should be no surprises," Chemerinsky said.

The campaign itself is not expected to get underway for at least another month. The charter reform proposal still faces one more hurdle: approval from the L.A. City Council. It is expected to be submitted to the full council this Wednesday, Feb. 3.

The council could vote to endorse the proposal without any changes, or it could decide to make revisions, which would then have to be approved by both the elected and appointed charter reform commissions before a single proposal could qualify for the ballot. The deadline for putting the proposal on the ballot is March 5; if the changes are substantial, getting approval from the commissions before the deadline could prove difficult.

The measure must be approved by at least eight of the 15 council members to be put on the ballot. As of last week, at least four council members Ruth Galanter, Nate Holden, Rudy Svorinich and Rita Walters had expressed some concern about the proposal and wanted to give it further study before deciding whether to support it.

City Hall observers believe the council will approve the measure with only minor changes, rather than risk having more than one proposal on the ballot.

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