CAN REFORM BEAT APATHY? : CHARTER INITIATIVE COULD BRING REAL CHANGE TO L.A. UNION SLATE DOMINATES COMMISSION.
It promised to be the drop-dead political thrill ride of turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, a roller-coaster journey toward that most fearsome, unpredictable and captivating of destinations: Change.
The passage Tuesday of Proposition 8 - along with the decisive and mandate-granting re-election of Mayor Richard Riordan - sets in motion the process by which the city's shopworn, 52-year-old charter can be re-engineered.
In short, the reform genie is out of the bottle.
But the success or failure of the charter reform effort may hinge on the strong showing of the slate of candidates backed by employee unions and the City Council in the face of widespread public apathy and a city fractured by demographic, social and economic forces.
Tuesday's abysmal turnout (estimated at 26 percent, near the record low) was demoralizing evidence of that apathy that now threatens to break up the entire notion of sprawling Los Angeles - that long-held, romantic notion of L.A. as a perpetually grand and sun-dappled urban experiment without limits.
``Several things are converging,'' said Mike Keeley, a longtime Riordan ally who headed the Proposition 8 drive. ``You have Dick Riordan wanting to leave his mark on the city, and he believes (charter reform) is the centerpiece of what he wants to do to position Los Angeles for the 21st century. Plus you have a number of very interesting political or municipal conflagrations such as the San Fernando Valley secession movement.
``There is a collective sense that the status quo is not an option. The seeds have been planted. The question is, where do they grow?''
Sixty council members instead of 15? Maybe. Concrete provisions enabling restructuring of the Los Angeles Unified School District? It could happen.
That these issues are even in play at this moment in this city is, to many, almost breathtaking. Unlike its highly politicized, big-city brethren New York, Chicago and San Francisco, Los Angeles is a town that has time and again proved itself practically impervious to participatory politics.
In 1949, City Councilman Ransom M. Callicott put his finger on the problem: ``Public Enemy No. 1 in Los Angeles is not any character under scrutiny of the grand jury,'' he wrote. ``It is the Los Angeles City Charter - a 125,000-word legal spider web of entangling phrases in which any honest official, once caught, struggles vainly for release. The only beneficiaries of this web are the nameless spider architects who have a vested interest in chaos, conflict and controversy.''
Today, suddenly, startlingly, anything seems possible. More to the point, a new charter - one which ostensibly empowers neighborhoods and transforms disenfranchised citizens into living, breathing stakeholders - may be a final opportunity for the idea of Los Angeles to survive.
``This is a historic opportunity for the city,'' said Xandra Kayden, political scientist at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research. ``Reform could have a substantial impact on the way the city functions by creating a better charter that is more flexible and responsive and conducive to engaging citizens in the process. The other benefit would be in the reform itself, where citizens demand to learn how the city functions.''
After Tuesday's vote, two charter reform commissions exist - a pre-existing one appointed by the City Council and, now, a popularly elected one.
The council convened its own commission last year in an unsuccessful attempt to deflate Riordan's signature-gathering effort to put Proposition 8 on the ballot. The appointed commission's recommendations are subject to change by the City Council - an arrangement that has prompted cynicism among critics. Many see the city's ``weak-mayor, strong-council'' system at the heart of the city's complex anatomy of troubles.
``There are two competing entities in this process,'' said David Fleming, a Studio City attorney, Riordan ally and ardent proponent of reform. ``One is the City Council, and the other is the people.''
Fleming contends the two commissions will have ``divergent interests'' because while the elected commission's ideas ``will go directly to the ballot, it is in the best interests of the council to have as little change as possible.
``The present structure of city government works to their advantage. They have power and control, and power and control is the coin of the realm in city politics.''
Rocks can be cast at the elected commission's motives as well. Its findings may be seen as the work of a power-grabbing Riordan, whose low-key public persona smoke screens his behind-the-scenes mastery of the art of the deal.
Moreover, appointed commission members like Susan Schuster - selected by Councilwoman Laura Chick - say they are hardly council puppets.
``I don't have any marching orders,'' Schuster said. ``My instructions are to function independently and to be completely objective.''
Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton and the newly appointed executive director of the council commission, said history - specifically police and ethics reform efforts - indicates that the council probably will choose to endorse most of the reforms its commission suggests.
History also provides some lessons from the last attempt in 1971 at charter reform. Then, Mayor Sam Yorty had just staved off a bruising challenge from Councilman and future Mayor Tom Bradley, and tensions between mayor and council ``probably were worse than today,'' Sonenshein said.
All but one of the present-day council members are incumbents and due to term limits will not be seeking re-election in 2001. They may be less inclined to a power struggle than a returning member; some outgoing council members also may run for mayor, which could change the way some view the reform process.
Finally, the debate may come down to how well - or poorly - the two commissions manage to work together. Some observers expect that the two commissions may actually find a great deal of common ground, although the entire process is ``fraught with peril,'' as Keeley said.
Yet, said Phill Wilson, another Proposition 8 official, ``from a voters' point of view, I don't think they care who comes up with the recommendation, as long as it's a good one. . . . It is an overwhelming challenge, but it also is an inspiring one. Is there a danger things will run amok? Sure. But there always is that chance in a democracy.''
Chart: (Color) VOTER TURNOUT
Voter turnout in L.A. has fallen in recent off-election year municipal contests. Tuesday's election is the latest in which voters have paid little attention.