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Feb 2009
Changing the Charter

For the March 3 ballot, The Times supports Charter Amendments A, C and D, but opposes E.

Los Angeles Times Editorial

A decade after Los Angeles voters adopted a new City Charter on the promise that an updated, streamlined and cleaned-up document would free them from the need for repeated corrections, the March 3 ballot presents five proposed charter amendments. The most complex and controversial -- the solar power measure, Charter Amendment B -- is a special case requiring extra attention. The Times intends to offer its recommendation on that measure Thursday.

On the other four, we weigh in here and note with some frustration that they raise issues that ought to be addressed in the normal course of City Hall business. Ballot questions historically involve direct requests for residents' tax money, as in the case of general obligation bonds to be repaid from property tax proceeds, or a fundamental restructuring of governmental power, as with measures that stripped lifetime tenure from the police chief and imposed term limits on the mayor and City Council members. None of these measures falls into those categories.

Two -- Charter Amendments C and D -- deal with the most obscure of changes to the city's Fire and Police Pension Plan and affect an astonishingly small number of people. Charter Amendment C would allow the disabled child of a deceased firefighter, police officer or other person covered by the pension plan to continue getting survivor benefit payments even after he or she marries or is adopted. Over the last decade, the number of people in the universe contemplated by Charter Amendment C was exactly one.

Charter Amendment D would allow benefits to be extended to people who marry retirees covered by the pension plan. The retiree would have to elect the benefit and pay for it, so there would be no new unfunded pension liability.

The Times acknowledges that pension plans are fraught with potential financial hazards for the city and therefore the taxpayers, so we swallow our irritation with such petty demands for voter attention. Charter Amendment C will have little effect on the fiscal health of the pension plan and should be approved, although its beneficial attributes are slight. Charter Amendment D's costs will be allocated among those who benefit, and it too should be approved. The Times urges yes votes on Charter Amendments C and D.

Charter Amendment A is another matter. It would create a new position, to be known as "independent assessor," in the Los Angeles Fire Department, to report directly to the Board of Fire Commissioners on the personnel disciplinary process. The job should not be necessary. In addition to the commission, the Fire Department's disciplinary oversight and risk management backups include the fire chief, the personnel department and the city attorney's office.

But interviews with firefighters, commission members and others in the City Hall personnel system have convinced us that both the position and the charter amendment are prudent steps. Despite decades of high-profile harassment, bias and retaliation lawsuits brought mostly by female and nonwhite firefighters, the Fire Department continues to flounder when disciplining personnel. In the notorious Tennie Pierce case, taxpayers had to pay $1.5 million to Pierce and another $1.6 million to two of his superiors who were suspended for their handling of his case. The question at hand is not whether the department can distinguish between a practical joke and racial bigotry, but whether the public can be assured that it can mete out discipline fairly and dispassionately.

The independent assessor will have power to follow discipline cases from start to finish and report to the commission, and will, we hope, function as successfully as the Police Commission's inspector general. The firefighters want the new position, management wants it, the commission wants it, the controller wants it, so voters should give it to them and should expect that the additional costs will be more than made up by a Fire Department that finally gets its personnel act together, improves disciplinary oversight and reduces the number of costly lawsuits. The Times urges a yes vote on Charter Amendment A.

Charter Amendment E would engraft in the City Charter a section that specifically allows the mayor and City Council to offer incentives, such as tax breaks, to businesses that move to Los Angeles. It's a provision that business leaders say the city badly needs if it is to at long last compete with scrappier and more aggressive municipalities in the battle for good jobs and stronger tax bases. That's a worthy goal, and the measure's chief proponent, Councilman Greig Smith, argues that it would allow the city to create an economic development department that would offer standardized incentives to businesses instead of special deals for politically connected business owners.

Standardized offers to businesses and the elimination of political deal-making are great ideas -- but they are nowhere to be found in Charter Amendment E. On its face, in fact, the measure can be read to do the exact opposite.

Charter Amendment E follows a disturbing and increasingly frequent pattern in ballot measures created by elected officials and placed before voters. It seeks a transfer of power to the political body but fails to enumerate just what that power may be. Voters are asked to sign off anyway, in advance, on the promise that Smith will oversee the crucial details of who gets to pick the favored businesses, and on what grounds.

That process completely misapprehends the purpose of a charter amendment, which is to enact a structural change that will work to the city's benefit regardless of who is in office at any given time. Instead of outlining how city government can be more transparent and evenhanded in its economic development, this measure asks for a grant of unearned faith in City Hall.

Besides, the city already offers special deals to businesses. The proponents in fact assert that their amendment is largely symbolic. This abuse of voters' patience should be rejected. The rest of Smith's business reforms -- those that can be adopted by the council -- ought to go forward, along with other, fairer improvements, such as continuing to streamline the city's permitting process and simplify its business tax system. The Times urges a no vote on Charter Amendment E.



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