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Look who's running Los Angeles now

FOUR LOCAL ENTITIES ARE UNDER FEDERAL SUPERVISION. LESSONS FROM ACITY THAT CAN'T SEEM TO MANAGE ITSELF.

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As a result, the current consent decrees here seek to amend specific grievances.

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*The MTA, prodded by a minority-dominated bus-riders' union, signed a 1996 decree agreeing to expand bus service with more vehicles. Projected spending as a result, will be $730 million by 2004.

*Also in 1996, the LAUSD, the nation's second-largest school district, agreed to a consent decree to expand educational offers for special-education students as required by federal law. The order created 11 full-time employees and 20 consultants. It will spend $34 million next year.

*The consent decree between the city Sanitation Bureau and the US Environmental Protection Agency has set a timetable for $2 billion in sewage treatment.

*The L.A. County Sheriff's Department, meanwhile, is creating an ombudsman's office to oversee discrimination in hiring.

In each case, problems have been solved, and others created.

"We were thrilled when the MTA signed a consent decree," says Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategy Center, which helped organize community action against the MTA. "But here we are four years later, and we don't yet have any solution that is enforceable."

Some observers say the overseers themselves can become a part of the problem. "The agreement spurred us to accelerate the revamping of our bus system," says Marc Littman of the MTA. "But we felt the special master tried to micromanage our affairs."

Problems can be compounded by judges from outside jurisdictions. "What is interesting about all these cases is the way they short circuit the political process by allowing the transfer of power from elected officials to unelected judges," says Ralph Rossum, director of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.

These judges are often not trained in the fields that they oversee, or they are understaffed or under-experienced in gathering information to make their decisions.

Legal arrangements also can drag on, because neither party in a dispute has the power to end it.

"Allowing consent decrees to run rampant subtly teaches the electorate not to take politics as seriously as they should, because they begin to feel that if things get out of hand, someone in a black robe will step in to save the situation," says Mr. Rossum.

However the current police situation plays out, observers here say the lesson is to figure out how, in a growing region of 10 million people, to strengthen the hand of local citizens at all levels of government.

"How do we find solutions short of consent decrees, which naturally erode the evolution of the government they are attempting to serve," says Joel Kotkin, an associate for the Reason Foundation here. "Do you drive better accountability through smaller units by devolving smaller government entities, or by growing them bigger?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society