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The Best Way to Bust Up L.A.
Jun 12, 2002
By Joel Kotkin and Fred Siegel
Publisher: The Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times

The boroughs would have real power, with control over basic city services. L.A.'s government structure was brilliantly designed for a different era.

The months leading up to the Nov. 5 election don't bode well for Los Angeles. The bruising battle over Valley and Hollywood secession will probably inflame the city's existing racial, class and ideological divisions. Likely to be overlooked in such a debate is the central question undergirding the secessionist impulse--the quality of governance in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles' government has a reputation as one of the least efficient and most expensive in the nation. The city ranks at or near the bottom in virtually every cost category, from services to the cost of doing business here, according to the Kosmont Cost of Doing Business Survey and the Reason Foundation. The city also suffers from a lack of political trust and from a low rate of political participation. A recent study of "civic capital" in 40 U.S. cities by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found that Los Angeles ranked near the bottom when it came to trusting other people and civic engagement. Unfortunately, neither side in the secession battle has a plan to deal with these failures. The anti-secession side seems committed to scare tactics, while secession advocates have not made a convincing case for a new city other than to cite the failures of the old. To save Los Angeles in the long term, the city needs to find ways to make its governance more local, less bureaucratic and more reflective of the diverse needs of its neighborhoods. In short, it needs a framework for a new, more flexible system of governance.

Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat who represented Sherman Oaks, has worked out the basic outlines of such a system. In essence, his plan would jettison the City Council framework and replace it with a borough system. Each of the nine boroughs in the Hertzberg plan would serve as a kind of local municipality. The boundaries of the boroughs would be drawn to keep communities of geographic interest together. For example, Van Nuys, which the new Valley city would break up into several districts, would be kept whole in a proposed mid-Valley borough.

The boroughs would have real power, with control over such basic city services as housing, community development, parks, recreation and cultural affairs. A five-member council elected from districts of roughly 82,000--a size amenable to grass-roots campaigns--would run each borough. The representatives would be part-time legislators, a feature that would open the door to citizen-politicians. Local residents could call on their own "little city hall" to deal with their problems. People from Watts, San Pedro or Granada Hills would no longer have to trek downtown in search of basic services.

Critical services best controlled from downtown--police, fire, water, ports, airports and final zoning authority--would be handled by a council of borough presidents made up of the nine borough presidents. The council would be a forum for balancing local and citywide interests. The mayor would retain his expanded executive authority under the recently adopted charter. The proposed council differs from the current system in that each borough president would be someone with responsibility and operational control of a district. In other words, accountability would be introduced into the system.

Those who believe that only elites should hold power will resist Hertzberg's call for the diffusion of city government power. Those living off the current dysfunctional system--political consultants, some union officials, well-connected developers, to name a few--will find Hertzberg's plan equally noxious. So, too, will some die-hard secessionists, whose primary motivation often seems more about "getting even" than about creating a better and more responsive government.

Others will claim that Hertzberg's approach is too radical, too untested. Yes, the plan calls for a sharp departure from the status quo. Yet other great cities have adopted similar borough systems. In London, which did not have a central government until recently, local services have long been successfully provided on a borough basis. In New York City, quality-of-life services, such as garbage collection and street repairs, were most reliably delivered when the city had a strong, functioning borough system. Furthermore, the city's recent revival owed much to the decentralization of its parks, sanitation and business services.

New York City's borough system has atrophied over the years, no longer providing the strong sense of local civic identity that once knit together polyglot populations. Manhattan's overweening power--economic, cultural and political--is partly to blame. In the face of that dominance, borough governance was scaled back.

True, Hertzberg's plan faces an uphill battle to make it on the November ballot. Given the time constraints, only the City Council can add the proposal to the ballot. The question, then, is whether the council would contribute to its own possible demise. But Los Angeles, with its polycentric economy, is ideal for a borough system.

Opponents of the Hertzberg plan probably will contend that it flies in the face of the political traditions and folkways of Los Angeles. Such an argument, however, underestimates both the degree of change in the city during the last 100 years and L.A.'s reputation as a first-class innovator in government.

Los Angeles' governmental structure was brilliantly designed--for a different era. Nonpartisan commissions, sophisticated use of zoning, adoption of economies of scale to develop more efficient services, all worked reasonably well as late as the 1970s. Borough proposals, dating back to 1906, were periodically floated in response to the city's geographic and population growth, but as long as the progressive-era system worked, there was little incentive to change it.

But today's dispersed post-industrial economy, and the city's far-reaching diversity, make the centralized councilmanic system a barrier to future success. For one thing, the need for centralization, as many in the private sector have long recognized, has been reduced by the digital revolution, which allows for information to be shared and accessed as never before. Local boroughs do not need large cadres of clerks and professional interveners to develop their databases or reach educated decisions; most of the needed information, and processing tools, exist on the Internet.

Also, the progressive system was designed for a city that was, for the most part, dominated by middle-class Anglo Protestants, largely from the Midwest. The assumption was that uniform systems and approaches would work citywide, since most people shared the same cultural inclinations. This is no longer true in Los Angeles, where not only race but also cultural sensibilities, desire for urban amenities and interest in density vary from section to section.

Finally, the borough system rests on the building block of Los Angeles that works for most Angelenos--their neighborhoods. In surveys, Angelenos usually express satisfaction with their neighborhoods even while feeling ambivalent, or worse, about the city as a whole. Each of us identifies with the issues we face in our communities. Whether it's mothers in East Los Angeles fighting to improve their children's education, or senior citizens in Woodland Hills lobbying for a traffic light, the energy of this city draws on our sense of place and connection to where we shop, where our children play, where we worship and where we find everyday meaning in our lives. Hertzberg's borough plan strives to capture the vibrancy of our communities and translate it into a system of governance.

The larger notion of Los Angeles--with all its symbolism--can best be built on a bedrock of local governance. The Hertzberg plan provides that bedrock.

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Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the Milken Institute. He is author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape" (Random House, 2001). Fred Siegel is a historian at the Cooper Union.