Originally posted at City Watch LA.
By Bob Gelfand.

We ought to quadruple the number of LA City Council members and reduce all their salaries by twenty-fold. While we’re at it, let’s abolish the city commissions. To demonstrate this thesis, I offer the examples of a couple of other towns I used to live in.

One was Lakewood, California, and before that, I lived in a place called Lafayette, Indiana. That’s the Lafayette in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, as in “Tippecanoe, and Tyler too.”

What’s important to this story is that Lafayette was run better than my hometown of Los Angeles, and Lakewood runs way better.

You would think it ought to be the other way around. Los Angeles is mighty in culture and productive enterprises. Presidential candidates make pilgrimages to LA.

But if you ask the average Angeleno whether he feels like he has a say in his own governance, the answer is going to be a resounding negative. Go ahead and ask. I did, just the other day, and the businessman I spoke to responded in some amusingly unprintable language.=

Over in Lakewood, it’s very different. I actually only lived there about a dozen years, but in that time I met every member of the City Council and was on a first name basis with several. This wasn’t anything special for a Lakewood resident. The government is close to the people there. One reason is that there are plenty of elected City Council members to go around, and not too many residents.

One important reason that Lakewood government is fair and effective is that no single member of their City Council has absolute power and authority over any part of the city. It takes 3 votes on the City Council to pass an ordinance or to hire a new City Manager. It’s a very good example of how representative government is meant to function.

The Lakewood city government doesn’t do rash, stupid things, because there is always somebody there to ask, “OK, why do we want to do this?” It’s also a very good way to reduce favoritism. When you have five council members, each individually responsible for what’s good for the whole city, it’s a lot harder to slide stuff through. By the way, much of what I say about Lakewood, I could also say for Lafayette. Both cities are of modest population, in the range of seventy to eighty thousand, and both have popularly elected councils whose members get to know their constituents.

Compare that to Los Angeles. Remember how the City Council did redistricting? It ended up being, in effect, a bunch of favors to a few well connected City Council members. For example, ask the Korean business community what they think about being disenfranchised. Some majority of the LA City Council should have asked the question, “OK, do we really want to do this?,” and then answered in the negative.

But that redistricting ordinance, as with so many others, just kind of slid through in its own mysterious way, in spite of its substantial inequities.

That’s because the City of Los Angeles is run more like 15 autonomous feudal kingdoms, each forced to deal with the other kingdoms through temporary alliances, than it is a well-knit city.

It’s the way of human nature. Put 15 individuals, each with a substantial ego, around a City Council table and put a pile of money in the middle of that table. What do you think will happen? Short of armed conflict, the one mathematically stable solution to such a question is for everyone to get an equal share.

There is a corollary to this kind of a system. The unwritten rule in the LA City Council is, You don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you. That’s the diplomatically stable solution to having a large number of elected officials who represent different districts. Van Nuys doesn’t tell San Pedro how to position its new police station, and San Pedro doesn’t tell Westwood how to position its allotment of parking meters. The way that our elected council members divvy up the tax dollars and work out coalition governance for citywide problems is the effect of this structural flaw.

That’s also how the City Council representative becomes, in effect, the Duke of Westwood or the Duchess of San Pedro.

I’m not using these terms to denigrate the people who filled those City Council seats. They inherited a system which has certain perks and lots of responsibilities. In practice, City Council representatives have a lot of local power because they have decisions to make and because they are basically left alone by their peers on the City Council.

It’s a wasteful, inefficient system because the local Duke or Duchess has too much power and not enough information in a district that is way too large. And worse still, having 15 quasi-autonomous feudal states makes for a system which fails to work to the better advantage of the city as a whole. Think about the fact that even now, there is no rail line that goes all the way to the airport, and there is no rail line that takes passengers to the harbor. There is a huge lack of parking structures in places where they ought to be. What is good for the city as a whole sometimes gets lost.

A prime example of how some parts of the city do better than others is the Fastrak system on the Harbor Freeway. It’s a system of toll lanes with variable pricing (depending on the level of traffic) which requires the installation of a transponder in your car. The harbor area refers to the Fastrak system as “The Lexus Lanes,” because they are a favor to the wealthy. The harbor area hates the Fastrak system because it condemns us to perpetual traffic jams, but we are stuck with it. The thing is, Fastrak didn’t necessarily have to go on the 110. We are the victims because the wealthier sections of town objected to having it in their backyard.

Multiply Fastrak and all the other insider deals that characterize the way the city government handles citywide issues, and you have the Greenline, Fastrak, the parking fines, and the issuance of monopoly rights to a few trash haulers.

Back in Lakewood, it was never this way. Since every major legislative and executive decision goes to the entire City Council, and because every member of the City Council is effectively a local, things run more evenly.

There’s one other problem with the Los Angeles system that we’ll only mention in passing. With City Council districts being the enormous size they are, and with City Council salaries being extraordinarily high in comparison to most, there is a lot of competition for each seat, and it takes a lot of money to run. Hundreds of thousands of dollars is pretty much the minimum for what it takes to run for any contested seat. That adds an additional level of complication to the system, because people who write those campaign donation checks expect to get access and influence. When the group that is writing the biggest checks is the municipal employee unions who will be asking for salary increases after the election, the system is skewed.

I compare that to one guy I knew who was urged to run for a vacant seat on the Lakewood City Council. He spent $1500 of his own money to let people know that he was running. He was elected and stayed on the council for the next four or five terms without ever asking anybody else for a dime.

and we have in each LA council district a single powerful official overseeing a quarter of a million residents in a system that can’t seem to cope with the wider, citywide problems.

It’s not surprising that the members of the City Council are lost at sea, as it were, in terms of both local decision making and doing what’s best for the city as a whole. It’s also not surprising that some of them feel trapped in a system where they are beholden to the big money donors who make it possible for them to stay in office.

So is there any viable solution? The city is too big to subdivide into fifty Lakewoods, and its doubtful that the voters would opt to create 250 seats on the City Council where there are only 15 now.

But we could modify our system just enough so that we do away with the Dukedom problem. In theory, the solution is a modification of the Borough system. Instead of 15 council districts ruled by one person each, we can have 15 or 20 boroughs, each overseen by a board of 3 or 5 elected officials. We can pay them ten or fifteen thousand dollars apiece (instead of the current salary for a council member, which is almost twenty times higher) and still have money left over.

The advantage is that under this kind of a system, no one person will have the kind of power and authority that is currently held by each City Council representative under our current system. Particularly at the local level, this kind of system would be fairer and more efficient.

To be blunt, the current system involves favoritism for those who are friends of the Councilman. It’s not even the intention to be corrupt, but if the elected City Councilman played Little League baseball, he is more likely to invite the Little League into his office and discuss how to replace their aging fields and grandstands. Under a system where decisions have to be made in collaboration with others, the competing interests of the little League, the local high school, the homeless shelter, and the people living in the gated community will be balanced more equitably.

That kind of a system would also reduce the problems created by our current system of “pay to play,” where wealthy donors have access and influence, resulting in legislation that is not always in the best interests of the rest of us. When power is diluted in a borough type system — where five people are elected instead of just one, and where the salary and benefits are not a huge attraction like they are now — we can hope for a more independent class of candidates, the kind of people who currently serve on neighborhood councils.

I also mentioned abolishing the city’s commissions. That’s for another discussion, but the logic is similar.