Law-and-order mayor faces his sternest test

L.A.'s leader has pushed for government reform through a new city

Mayor Richard Riordan loves to point out a political caricature that hangs at the back of his eighth-floor office here. Entitled "Tunnel Vision," the caricature pictures the second-term Republican in ghoulish grays with distorted facial features - as if to say he would impose maniacal or narrow ideas on Los Angeles.

"My opponents loved to belittle me with this during the last election," he says with a cackle. "They lost. I won."

In 1994, Mayor Riordan was ushered in with a freshman class of American mayors - such as New York's Rudolph Giuliani, Philadelphia's Edward Rendell, and Detroit's Dennis Archer - who promised to reinvent and reorganize city government. Now, Riordan's boldest vision from that promise is about to face its ultimate test: On Tuesday, a sharply divided electorate will vote on whether to overhaul the city's decades-old constitution.

Though seemingly arcane, the issue is seen as a turning point in city history - as well as a referendum on the past six years of Riordan's rule. For Los Angeles, an overhaul would give mayors a far stronger say in key matters ranging from contracting to hiring dozens of department heads. For Riordan, it will be an indicator of how much influence he has: He's staked a good deal of his political prestige on passing the measure.

"The second-largest city in America has for decades stumbled through without a strongly centralized municipal government," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "The overhaul will either become a green light for like-minded reformers elsewhere or a signal that perhaps such attempts are politically impossible. For Riordan it will represent the final assessment of his ability to work his will."

Starting at the bottom

Riordan took control of the city at a low point in its history - amid deep recession and post-riot soul-searching. But he has delivered on much of a promised turnaround: Business is back, crime is down, and revitalization projects are popping up like May flowers.

But Riordan and other L.A. mayors have long complained that the city's "strong council/weak mayor" charter hamstrings efficient management. A high-profile secession move by the sprawling San Fernando Valley is held up as one manifestation of citizen frustration. Unwieldy recalcitrance in the Los Angeles Police Department is another.

With one year left in his second term, Riordan is enjoying high ratings - nearly 60 percent approval citywide. Violent crime is down 60 percent since 1993, one-third more police have been hired, and in an interview here, the mayor rattles off nearly a dozen high-profile projects that are changing the city landscape: a new downtown arena and a Hollywood renaissance, among other things.

But he says such improvements could have been effected in half the time if the city's governing structure were different.

"Right now, power in this city is so diffuse you can't find who is responsible when something goes wrong," he says with a demeanor that is both affable and authoritative. "The mayor has no control over something so basic as contracts. Any contract the City Council wants to take over, they can, and I have no power to veto them."

By way of example, he says he just found out the city has for more than a decade been paying $500,000 a year in penalties for late phone bills. "Who's supposed to be responsible?" he asks. "No one knows. Under the new charter, it will be the mayor because he or she will have control over the departments."

As yet, the charter proposal has a low profile. In a recent poll, nearly 42 percent of voters said they have not heard or seen anything about it. Of those who have, 41 percent support it and 36 percent are against it, prompting concern among some City Council members.

"Instead of evening out the balance of power, they have changed the balance too much in direction of the mayor," says councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, one of nine council members (out of 15) who is against the measure. "Many of us left cities in the East because the mayors had become king. If you look at the whole power relationship between the executive and legislative branches in cities in the West, you will find it is partly a reaction to that. We don't want to go back to the problems we left behind."

As the vote approaches, both sides are competing for public opinion. For his part, Riordan has led a $1.5 million fund-raising effort for charter proponents, using much of his own money and that of other key city leaders. Opponents have not raised as much money but are winning support of key unions who have recently come out against the charter proposal.

In the middle are undecideds, who generally favor a strong mayor or who like the direction Riordan has taken the city. But that may not be good reasoning, say detractors, because the effects of any such constitutional change will outlive both the current City Council and mayor.

"The real losers in this will be people who did not pay attention and let this go through," says Mrs. Goldberg. "By term limits, we will be gone, but the power structure will stay."

Voter wrath

If the charter does not pass, some observers say a period of voter disaffection will follow.

"This charter has such a broad coalition of support that if it fails, it will never be revived," says Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor who headed an elected charter-reform commission. "Instead, you will see the undermining of confidence in accountable city government with a consequent rise in secession movements.

"If it does pass, you must give Richard Riordan credit," he adds. "Without his effort and energy, this would not have gotten this far."

However the charter referendum reflects on the ultimate legacy of Riordan, most urban watchers give him high ratings for at least turning around the confidence of a city that had lost its way.

"Riordan came along in a cohort of American mayors with a very high amount of innovation and effectiveness," says Professor Schier. "If charter reform succeeds, it will be the crown jewel of a very successful career. If it fails, he will be one more in a succession of popular, effective mayors who tried to level the playing field but ran into an established power structure that was just too entrenched."

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