Joe Mathews: Why expanding city councils makes sense

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Los Angeles City Hall, completed 1928, is the center of the government of the city of Los Angeles, California, and houses the mayor's office and the meeting chambers and offices of the Los Angeles City Council. Photo credit: Ken Lund/CC 2.0, via Flickr

The city of Los Angeles has 15 City Council members for a population of more than four million people - or one representative for every 375,000 residents. Zocalo Commentator Joe Mathews says that’s not nearly enough to reflect the breadth and diversity of the city. He’d like to see Los Angeles and California’s other big cities substantially expand their councils to make room for dozens of new elected officials. Doing that, he says, would increase participation and interest in local government and give voice to groups that are often left on the sidelines.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Bigger is better

Want a stronger California city? Don’t make your mayor more powerful. Make your city council bigger.

Mayors Sam Liccardo of San Jose and Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento are seeking to become “strong mayors”—with broad executive authority over department heads, budgets and council legislation.   

“Strong mayors” are rare in California. More typically, California cities are run by appointed city managers, and mayors are just one member of our small, weak city councils.

The pandemic and policing controversies have added urgency to the debate. Liccardo and Steinberg complain that while the public looks to them for action in the current crises, they lack the authority to do anything themselves. So Liccardo is pursuing a “strong mayor” charter reform for San Jose, and Steinberg is backing a “strong mayor” measure on Sacramento’s November ballot.

Both men would be wise to drop the idea, and look instead at their council. And not just because the “strong mayor” idea has caused political conflict at a time when their cities, and the whole state, desperately need unity. The larger problem is that creating a single powerful leader won’t make California cities any stronger.

Our cities’ lack of power is a function of our state’s constitution, which centralizes power in the state government and severely limits the most important local power—the power to raise taxes. Voters imposed this weak local system through Proposition 13 and related measures because they don’t trust their local officials.

How to build trust and convince voters to change the system? By making local governments more responsive and representative. But local governments can’t be representative, because our tiny city councils have so few representatives, typically only 5 or 7.

San Jose, with one million-plus people, has just 11 council members. Sacramento has nine for 500,000, and San Diego nine for its 1.4 million-plus residents. Then there’s L.A., with just 15 council members for more than four million people. Such minimal representation means that there are simply too few elected positions to reflect the kaleidoscopic diversity and myriad ideas of California and its communities.

The globe’s greatest cities have large, energetic city councils or parliaments. The council in Madrid, Spain, with 57 members, might be the world’s most innovative, having created the online “Decide Madrid” citizen platform that has been adopted by 100 cities.

Vienna, a pioneer in using local democracy, has 100 representatives. Paris has 163, Tokyo  127, and Seoul, a leader in citizen engagement, 110.

If L.A. had a city council member for every 25,000 people—making politicians closer to neighborhoods—the body would have 160 members, the same as in Berlin, Germany. By the same formula, San Jose would have 41 councilmembers, and Sacramento 21.

It wouldn’t be hard to fill all those new offices—the people marching on our streets now are natural candidates. Mayors Liccardo and Steinberg also might find prospects for expanded city councils among the many opponents of their “strong mayor” plans.

Tellingly, the debates over “strong mayor” in Sacramento and San Jose surfaced complaints about a lack of representation.

In Sacramento, Steinberg modified his original plan in response to community and political opposition. He also paired his November “strong mayor” measure with provisions to ensure more equity and representation in city policy.

In San Jose, Liccardo dropped a “strong mayor” ballot measure for November and instead announced a more inclusive charter revision process.

“At the end of the day,” Liccardo wrote, “our city belongs to its residents.”

It does. Which is why more residents should be in office.

With more of our neighbors campaigning for council, Californians would vote more often in local elections. And with more colleagues and engaged citizens behind them, California mayors might find that they have more power.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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