A Better City Council . . . And Bigger

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Diagnosing the distempers of the city hall system is easy. (Examples from my own posts are here and more recently here.) Reform is more elusive.

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Shaken by the specter of Valley secession in the late 1990s, city hall groped toward change, ultimately putting a package of charter revisions before skeptical voters in 1999. But reform turned out to be a hybrid thing, compounded of ideas from two advisory commissions with very different political interests.

Despite its half measures and compromises, the new charter promised to redirect the flow of power at city hall into new channels. That was at least something . . . a beginning . . . but not enough to finish reforming the political culture of city hall.

The voters wanted something more. They certainly wanted a greater measure of transparency in government and more direct engagement in the policy decisions that shape the quality of life in their neighborhood. They wanted, it seemed to me at the time, a human face to the replace the blind, unfeeling mask that city government had become. They wanted, I suppose, more reasons to be loyal to their idea of Los Angeles

The current redistricting fiasco shows how few reasons residents have. Blame the Hahn and Villaraigosa administrations for failing to understand the work that voters had handed them. Blame the heads of city departments, protecting their turf. Blame the mayor and city council for letting department heads get away with it. And blame the system at city hall that let 15 city council members devolve into mere brokers of development deals.

Reform of the city council needs a push, if politics in Los Angeles is to avoid sliding further into cronyism . . . or worse. A system of boroughs bringing representation closer to neigborhoods was one early proposal, eloquently considered by Professor Kevin Starr, emeritus State Librarian, here.

More recently, Jessica Levinson on the 1st and Spring site and the Los Angeles Times in an editorial have suggested expanding the size of the city council to something appropriate for the nation's second largest city.

As the Times noted:

No council member has ever been elected from Watts, for example, nor have the voters of Watts ever proved decisive in selecting a representative for their district, which includes distant San Pedro. Communities often dismissed as "new," such as Koreatown - although a community that began its monumental growth in the 1970s should hardly be called new today - are carved up and parceled out as if they didn't exist. A 15-member council cannot seriously purport to provide adequate representation for Los Angeles.

If nothing else, a larger city council would give a political identity to many more of the city's diverse ethnic, racial, and demographic parts, not because every community needs to have its own council member but because every Angeleño needs to see a recognizable face when they turn to city government for answers, inspiration, or help.

Perhaps a particularly charismatic mayor might fill that role, but in the current mayor, we've seen the obvious limits of charisma.

It's past time to break the system and upset the city hall machine and its monumental indifference. Let Los Angeles have more politics where politics is most meaningful - at the level of communities and their common interests. Make more council districts, and give Los Angeles more council members.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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In theory, I think every Angeleno would support a larger city council that represents more districts in the city with a smaller individual populace. In practice, though, the assumed cost of additional field offices, staff, expenses and councilmember salaries (even if they were lowered), to say nothing about remodeling the horseshoe in council chambers, would cause a number of people to balk at the idea.

Perhaps a 17 or 19-member council rather than a 21+ sized one might be a modest, and more feasible, change.