Making LA: Government

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LA City Hall

The greater metro LA area has about 16 million people. Ten million of those — more than a quarter of the state’s residents — live in LA County, the most populous county in the country.

And LA County encompasses not just the city of LA (population 4 million, second only to New York), but 87 other independent cities.

That’s a lot of government. And as a result, Raphe Sonenshein — executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A. — says that, when it comes to local government, Angelenos often don’t “have a clue who does what and where and why.” And that may have something to do with the very low voter turnout in the region.

All these overlapping jurisdictions can lead to gridlock and inefficiency. Rick Cole — who recently left his post as deputy mayor of Los Angeles to become city manager in Santa Monica — says he compares working in the city of LA to “a three legged sack race. You get that image of trying to make progress. But you’ve really got to stagger forward, because you have to bring everyone else along.”

Cole says, in order to combat corruption, early citizen reforms intentionally created a weak mayor in LA, unlike the powerful mayors in cities like Chicago and New York. But with diffuse power comes a lack of responsibility and accountability.

Sonenshein points out that the LA Charter Reforms of 1999 made the mayor more clearly accountable: giving the LA mayor the power to hire and fire all city commissioners and making it easier to fire general managers.

The charter also made the chief of police accountable to a citizen’s police commission. That’s not true of the LA County sheriff, who is elected by popular vote and is not accountable to anyone but the voters.

“Traffic doesn’t stop at city borders, the air doesn’t stop at city borders, watersheds don’t stop at city borders, and, frankly, the economy doesn’t stop at city borders,” Cole points out. “There’s no Santa Monica economy or Burbank economy, there’s a Southern California economy.” So he says we need better cooperation between all the cities and the county. To make that happen, he wants to see residents be given more power over very local issues, and central authorities be given more power to handle issues affecting the larger region.

Given the great problem solvers and efforts at reform in LA, Sonenshein is very optimistic about the region’s future.

“Los Angeles is really having a moment,” Cole agrees. “technology is booming here. Our creative industries are booming here and making a world statement. [But] government’s got to catch up…figuring out how to do that is a big challenge.”