The reform panelâ€™s case for expanding the City Councilâ€”like a number of failed proposals to expand the Board of Supervisorsâ€”simply falls apart.
Back when I was writing newspaper editorials, an incumbent DA in a tough re-election race once met with me to make his pitch for our endorsement. Instead of the usual campaign bluster, he surprised me with a humble confession: â€śWhen youâ€™re a hammer,â€ť he acknowledged, â€śevery problem looks like a nail.â€ť
Well, when youâ€™re an academic, every problem can look like a study. It doesnâ€™t matter how many studies have already been doneâ€”academics can do studies of studies, repackaging earlier findings into a new report that reinforces the same conclusions. Maybe the authors are hoping that nobody will notice the recycled, and even previously rejected, ideas. And since neither the public nor the media seem to have much institutional memory anymore, maybe they wonâ€™t.
I thought of his comment when I recently read about the â€śLA Governance Reform Project,â€ť yet another well-meaning effort by a group of respected local academics and their researchers, all but two of whom boast Ph.D. degrees. They were recruited by three of the power hitters in LAâ€™s philanthropic community, the Eli Broad and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, and the California Community Foundation.
It all started last fall after the infamous leak of an embarrassing audio recording of a private meeting back in October 2021 between the head of the County Federation of Labor, Ron Herrera, and three City Council members, Nury Martinez, Kevin de LeĂłn, and Gil Cedillo. The four had been caught trash-talking about Blacks, Oaxacans, Asians and others as they hashed out details of the Councilâ€™s reapportionment process then underway.
The Council ultimately adopted its redistricting map only two months later, in December 2021, by a 13-0 vote in what the Los Angeles Times reported as â€śa quiet end to a contentious process.â€ť The recording lay around for a year, but last October, controversy erupted when somebody tipped the Times that someone had posted it on the Reddit platform. It went instantly viral, and the ensuing uproar quickly forced out labor head Herrera and Council President Martinez; Cedillo had already lost his seat in a primary defeat the previous June, so he was just marking time until his successor took office in December. But de LeĂłn enraged the Times by refusing to quit, and took a major beating in the press for weeks until things settled down.
The Times rode it hard through dozens of stories and commentaries all the way to a Pulitzer Prize, but the contours of the story never changed from the day it first broke. We still donâ€™t know how the recording was made, who leaked it, or why. Nobody has analyzed whether the unanimously adopted plan was fair or not to the respective ethnic communities, and nobody to my knowledge has ever challenged the planâ€™s constitutionality in court.
So what was it really all about, in the end? Power-broker politicians talking crudely in private? Welcome to the world!
But it was enough to touch off a moral panic in the Cityâ€™s civic leadership, who decided â€śsomething had to be done,â€ť even though three of the offenders are gone and the last holdout faces a potentially tough re-election next year. And so last month, â€śDraft Recommendations for A Better Governed LA Cityâ€ť emerged. According to the report, the authorsâ€™ and sponsorsâ€™ plan is to chew over its proposals in public during the coming months and eventually generate a package of measures on the November 2024 ballot they hope voters will adopt in toto.
The proposed reforms cover three areas: creating a reapportionment process independent of elected officials with two citizen commissions, one for the City Council and the other for the LA Unified School District board; expanding the City Council from 15 to 25 members, 21 elected by district and four additional at-large members, ostensibly to improve representation; and finally, strengthening the City Ethics Commission by giving it more of a role in shaping ordinances and regulations governing the Cityâ€™s elected officials. If the interim recommendations seem like reheated leftovers, thatâ€™s because they mostly are.
Good-government reformers latched onto the idea of independent reapportionment commissions a long time ago, and the basic arguments havenâ€™t changed. Supporters claim that itâ€™s a conflict of interest for politicians to redraw their own district lines and potentially benefit electorally; opponents reply that outsourcing the task to non-elected appointees offers voters no accountability for the results, and no guarantee of better transparency or effective public participation. And any planâ€”however devised and adoptedâ€”still has to pass constitutional muster should it be challenged in court.
So while Iâ€™ve never been enamored of the independent commission ideaâ€”reapportionment is always a messy power struggle no matter how you do itâ€”one feature in this reform proposal is particularly objectionable: including non-citizens on the reapportionment commissions. It just makes no sense to me that people who canâ€™t vote should be drawing the lines affecting the representation of those who can.
Expanding the City Council, as the report notes, has already been rejected three times by City voters, yet for some reason, the reportâ€™s authors think maybe the fourth time is the charm. They rationalize it by arguing that the electorate has changed and will be more receptive to the idea, and that putting it on a presidential election ballot will ensure a higher vote turnout among those likely to support it. By including ethics reform in the overall package, they may also be hoping that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down when voters cast their ballots.
But if you examine it closely, the reform panelâ€™s case for expanding the City Councilâ€”like a number of failed proposals to expand the Board of Supervisorsâ€”simply falls apart. The public plainly dislikes the idea of adding more politicians and incurring more administrative expense, even though Council operations are only a minuscule part of the Cityâ€™s overall budget. So to cosmetically address the publicâ€™s misperception (conceding that â€śongoing costsâ€¦are likely to impact voter attitudesâ€ť and maybe sink the measure on the ballot), they unrealistically propose to cap the council budget at something like the current level.
Doing the arithmetic that means increasing the number of elected officials by 60% while holding the budget constant would either reduce the number of staff members, or reduce everyoneâ€™s salaries, by 40%. But since all the constituent services are provided by staffâ€”not the elected officialâ€”cutting staff expenses by the same ratio that youâ€™re shrinking their constituency yields no improvement in service. Thereâ€™s no free lunch, and we need to tell voters the truth: you want better representation and constituent service, increase the size of the Council staffs, not the Council itself. And if you want honest and capable staffers, then donâ€™t cheap out. Pay them.
Anyone who honestly thinks 25 councilmembers will rule more efficiently and effectively than 15, raise your hand.
There are no shortcuts to good governance or honest representation. The media have to do their job of aggressively covering local government and significant issues, and the public and civic institutions must engage and participate in that debate. If voters expect high-quality elected officials and responsible policymaking they can trust, they must gain it the old-fashioned wayâ€¦ the way brokerage house Smith Barney once boasted they made money.