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Look who's running Los Angeles now


By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 2000


Is the nation's second-largest city ungovernable?

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Consider the Los Angeles Police Department. The largest scandal in LAPD history is so severe that a court could appoint a federal monitor to oversee the department for years to come.

The idea underlines a pronounced pattern here. During the past decade, four other local government entities have fallen under control of federal courts. They include the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Sheriff's Department and the Sanitation Bureau.

The concern is that such agreements - out-of-court settlements that typically involve independent authorities to oversee disputes - diminish local government authority and cost billions in taxpayer dollars. As such, experts say, they undermine representative government and citizen trust in the ability of elected officials to carry out their mandates.

"I don't know of any other city in America where the major infrastructure and leading institutions are being run by either a court or the interception of some other jurisdiction," says H. Eric Schockman, a political scientist at the University of Southern California here, who recently served on a two-year commission to rewrite the city's charter.

Other cities have the occasional consent decree calling for federal oversight to help run school districts, oversee prisons, police departments, or other agencies engaged in disputes. But Los Angeles's problems appear more widespread, Dr. Schockman and others say.

"It's a very real problem that speaks to the dysfunction of the governance structure in this region," he says.

While working on one of two commissions which recently rewrote the Los Angeles city charter, Schockman says he found that the founding fathers of the region followed a 19th-century paradigm of distrust of power. They designed a weak-mayor form of government with 15 city council members. In recent decades, however, Los Angeles County has become an unwieldy behemoth - the most populous in the nation, with more people than 44 states.

"They wanted to Balkanize power, spread it around, so they came up with 15 fiefdoms with mini-mayors," says Schockman. Five county supervisors also have czar-like power over Goliath-size districts. Despite a recently recast charter which strengthens the hand of the mayor and other officials, "We have been left with the legacy of this decentralization as a matter of lax accountability. The voter says, 'Who's in charge?' "

In other words, other observers say, the situation here is much different from the high-profile federal interventions that were called for to end desegregation in the South.

"The kind of federal interventions that Los Angeles has are more the result of getting leverage for locals to help reform unwieldy bureaucracies that exist here," says Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University in Fullerton, and author of a book on local politics. "It's not like a takeover, it's more that some agency bureaucracy needed a kick in the butt."