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EDITORIAL ONE YEAR LATE? WILL 2005 DELIVER ON 2004'S FALSE PROMISE OF ACCOUNTABILITY?

ON the first day of this year, we said that ``the great promise and hope for 2004 is that, at long last, accountability will return to state and local government.''

Now on this, the last day of the year, that optimism seems sadly unwarranted. Far from being the year of accountability, in Los Angeles, anyway, 2004 was merely the year of the scandal. In Sacramento it was, regrettably, a year of business as usual.

But we refuse to give up on our confidence that the self-serving culture of city and state politics is doomed, and that a period of populist renewal is imminent. The year of accountability may not have been 2004, but there's good reason to believe it will be 2005.

At the city level, 2004 was politically frustrating. Each week brought more revelations of just how crooked city government really is, yet with no real resolution. The county and federal investigations that began in 2003 will continue in 2005 - an aggravatingly slow pace for those impatient for justice.

But the investigations have picked up steam. Once limited to the goings-on at the Airports Department, they now also include similar scandals at the Harbor Department and the Department of Water and Power.

Meanwhile, City Controller Laura Chick has unearthed rampant overcharging - and naked political abuse - of the DWP's contract with politically connected P.R. giant Fleishman-Hillard. These revelations have worked their way into the criminal investigations.

Will all of these investigations bear fruit? It's hard to say. Documenting quid-pro-quos is never easy, and campaign ethics laws are notoriously loose. But the 2004 resignation of two of Mayor James Hahn's commissioners and a top aide all suggest that investigators are making progress.

Yet even if prosecutors are unable to pinpoint any illegal conduct, the steady stream of damning news this past year has made unseemly and unethical conduct impossible to miss. It certainly has tainted Hahn. And regardless of what prosecutors do or don't do, voters will have their chance to demand accountability from the mayor in upcoming elections.

Ethics has already become the top issue in the 2005 mayoral race, with opponents blasting Hahn's record and Hahn promising to clean house. Whoever wins, it will be on an explicit platform for ethical government, coming with a mandate - and an obligation - to change the way business is done in City Hall.

In Sacramento, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger largely resisted falling under the control of special interests during his first full year as governor. But he also raised mountains of special-interest cash, which could prove problematic in the future.

Moreover, he missed an opportunity to use his popularity and was unable to wrest an honest, truly balanced budget out of the incorrigible state Legislature. Despite campaigning in some key districts, he was unable to turn over a single seat in the gerrymandered Senate or Assembly.

The promise of the Schwarzenegger Revolution still looms, but like the ``pay-to-play scandal'' that has yet to force some necessary bloodletting in City Hall, it remains just a promise.

Still, we maintain hope.

In the new year, Schwarzenegger will have an opportunity to effect serious changes. Having used up most of the available tricks to cobble together last year's sham budget, California leaders will be forced to get serious about confronting structural problems in the state's fiscal management. That, we can only hope, will compel at least some to begin the difficult process of re-evaluating how the state spends taxpayers' money.

Schwarzenegger can also capitalize on the public's disgust with the Legislature by pushing a ballot initiative that would end the gerrymandering of state electoral districts. That reform alone could have seismic repercussions in Sacramento, forcing politicians to compete for their office and achieve real bipartisan support.

The governor remains very popular and wildly successful at pushing ballot initiatives. Should he take a comprehensive government reform package to the people, the voters will surely support it.

And that, ultimately, is where power - where the real hope for accountability - lies. If the public is engaged, informed and active, then political leaders have no choice but to respond.

Massive voter turnouts in the L.A. mayoral election and strong popular support for statewide reforms would do more than anything to shake some sense into a political class that's long stopped listening.

If 2005 becomes the year of accountability, it will be because voters finally demanded it.

The opportunity - and the urgency - couldn't be greater. It's up to you.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 31, 2004
Words:739
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