Is the nation's second-largest city ungovernable?
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."
As a result, the current consent decrees here seek to amend specific grievances.
*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