Less than four months before the new L.A. city charter must be implemented, Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council are still squabbling over key details and re-fighting battles considered settled last year before the charter was put to the voters.

Voters approved the charter measures nine months ago, but the council and mayor remain far apart on who gets to manage city finances and who should lobby on behalf of the city in Sacramento and Washington. Another battle is looming over who gets to set salary and compensation packages for top city managers.

And the clock is ticking: all of these policy decisions must be made by May 31 to allow the required 30 days for formal adoption of ordinances in advance of the July 1 implementation deadline.

"There is too much of an effort on both sides to refight the battles of charter reform and get back what they lost in the process," said USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who chaired the Elected Charter Reform Commission last year.

Concurrently, a major funding battle is shaping up over another key part of the revised charter: neighborhood councils. Hundreds of thousands of dollars must be set aside in the upcoming budget to form the dozens of local panels called for in the charter reforms. That comes at a time when city officials are still reeling from the potential liabilities the city may face over the exploding Los Angeles Police Department corruption scandal.

The mayor presents his budget on or about April 20 and the council must pass it by the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1.

While many city officials and charter observers believe these differences will be resolved in time, it could go down to the wire. And observers note that, given the state of relations between the mayor and the council, nothing can be taken for granted.

Of course, some aspects of charter implementation have proven non-controversial and straightforward, such as revisions to the city's contracting procedures. And one area that many believed would be fraught with controversy has sailed through rather smoothly: the creation of seven area planning commissions, which the council approved last month.

Financial fracas

Now the most intense conflict is over the powers that will be vested in the new Office of Finance created by the charter that will come under the jurisdiction of the mayor.

The council favors giving the office the minimum powers as outlined in the charter: the collection of revenues and the investment functions of a treasurer. Riordan, however, wants to centralize all of the city's finance functions in this new department, including the revenue forecasting and debt management now carried out by the city administrative officer.

"The mayor is trying to put forward a proposal that takes dramatic steps to improve financial management within the city," said Teresa Patsakis, the mayor's point person on charter implementation.

Patsakis cited a study completed last year by the Government Finance Officers Association ranking L.A. behind many other U.S. cities in its financial management practices. The study made recommendations on how to improve financial oversight, the chief being to consolidate financial functions now spread across many departments into one central location.

Incorporating the debt management and revenue forecasting duties into the Office of Finance enhances the power of the mayor, because that office reports directly to the mayor under charter reform while the chief administrative officer now reports to both the mayor and the council.

Some suggest that Riordan's decision to push this issue now may have been due in part to the failure of his attempt to oust current Chief Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka earlier this year. Both Riordan and Fujioka deny that is the case.

Fujioka said he is opposed to the Riordan proposal on philosophical grounds.

"It is bad fiscal practice to have in the same office the management of debt and the investment functions associated with that debt," he said. "I believe that is one of the things that contributed to the financial debacle a few years back in Orange County. You need the checks and balances that separation of those functions brings."

Councilwoman Laura Chick, who chairs the council's charter implementation committee, said the mayor's plan tries to do too much too quickly.

Round two

Chick also noted that the issue had been hashed out during the charter reform debate more than a year ago. The Elected Charter Reform Commission favored the consolidated approach, while the Appointed Charter Reform Commission pushed for the new Office of Finance to handle only revenue collection and investment. Yet in the compromise charter that finally emerged, the Appointed Commission view prevailed.

"The commissions ultimately voted down the additional powers, yet somehow this fight seems to be surfacing again," Chick said. "I'm not sure it's appropriate now to duke it out again."

The mayor and the council are also fighting over the issue of who gets to speak for the city in its dealings with other government agencies. Currently, that function is carried out by Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton, who is appointed by the council. But the new charter designates the mayor as the chief spokesman.

However, just how much discretion the mayor will have and when he will need to have council approval for the positions he stakes out is still at issue. Deaton has been pushing for a greater say, while Riordan is pushing for blanket authority.

For now, Chick's ad-hoc committee has left it to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, another conflict could emerge over the ability of the mayor to set compensation packages for department heads. CAO Fujioka is supposed to make recommendations to the council's ad-hoc charter implementation committee later this month.

Finally, there is perhaps the most important part of the charter: neighborhood councils. The charter reform package allows until the end of this year for the newly formed Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to recommend a plan for neighborhood councils, and until June 2001 to formally launch them. But much of the funding needed to set up the councils must be in place in the upcoming budget.

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