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The Failure of Reform, Part I: The LA Commission System

“Citizen boards and commissions
play a significant role in most city governments. These boards and commissions
serve as voices of city residents in local government.
Los Angeles goes further than most cities by granting extensive authority
to selected commissions as well as defining their prominent role in the city
charter.” –
Los Angeles
: Structure of a City Government by Raphael Sonenshein,
executive director of the Appointed City Charter Commission.


By any measure, the new City
Charter approved by voters on
June 8, 1999 in hopes
of reforming City Hall and creating a more democratic government is a dismal


Efforts to reform the city’s
constitution came in response to the grassroots secession movements that sprung
up in the
San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and Hollywood because
of City Hall’s failures to respond to the voices of the citizenry.


It was intended to empower
neighborhoods and strengthen the authority of the mayor while stripping the
City Council of its role as the governing body of the
Los Angeles.


But the goal of then Mayor Richard
Riordan and Valley civic leader David Fleming were derailed by the same
interests – developers, contractors, unions and the political manipulators of
city politics – who were responsible for policies that enriched them and driven
away the middle class heart of the city.


The new charter, in theory, was a
modest improvement over the old. In practice, it has made things worse.


Can anyone honestly say LA is
better off today than it was 10 years ago?


There’s still a 75-year backlog
of broken sidewalks and potholed streets, poverty has soared, the middle class
is still dwindling, Neighborhood Councils are powerless and largely ineffective
talking societies, crime is down but gangs still control vast areas, services
are being slashed even as taxes, rates and fees have soared – and Los Angeles
is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as a city.


Today’s exploration of what went
wrong is focused on the system of boards and commissions – particularly the
Board of Commissioners of the Department of Water and Power — which is
intended to be the public’s eyes and ears in City Hall, its watchdog on the
bureaucracy and a buffer between elected officials and the departments.


The reality is they are largely
appointed by the mayor and serve at his pleasure – a mayor who is given to giving
them marching orders, sending his staff to commission meetings to make sure
they deliver and brow-beating them when they defy him.


It’s noteworthy that only two
commissioners out of the hundreds of them – Jane Usher as President of the
Planning Commission and Nick Patsaouras as President of DWP Board – resigned in
recent years in protest against what they were being ordered to do.


The DWP is critically important
to all of us, the one agency that touches everyone in LA’s life every day.


It is the nation’s largest
municipal utility, yet it operates as if it were a private corporation. But unlike
private utilities it is not governed by the state Public Utilities Commission
or most state laws so the DWP Commission plays – or is supposed to play — a
vital role in protecting the public interest and balancing the competing
interests of business and residents, home owners and apartment dwellers.


That isn’t how it works.


The DWP has become City Hall’s
cash cow, turning over 18.8 percent of all its electricity revenue to support
the rest of city government.


It has allowed the infrastructure
of the power and water system to rot and has the least amount of clean energy
of any major electricity utility in the state even as rates have soared.


It is being used to redistribute
the wealth of the city’s residents by tripling the number of households on
sharply reduced low-income rates to 250,000 even as its tiered and geographic
rate structures favor one group and punish another.


It is virtually run by IBEW union
boss Brian D’Arcy who has managed to get 5.9 percent raises in good times and
raises of up to 4 percent in these bad times.

On Tuesday, the DWP board that is
supposed to be the public’s voice and protector unanimously approved a
five-year deal with D’Arcy that is a disgrace.

It gives DWP workers a lump sum
payment of 3.25 percent even though there’s deflation in the last year of
nearly 2 percent and guarantees them raises of at least 2 percent for the next
four years with as much as 2 percent more if there’s inflation.

These are workers who are paid as
much as 40 percent more than other city workers for similar functions as
clerks, accountants, managers and other comparable tasks.

And yet they are getting even
more money while other city workers including cops and firefighters are getting
nothing or losing income through furloughs and city services are being slashed
because of the elimination of 2,400 jobs through early retirement incentives
and the likelihood of several thousand more being laid off in the months ahead.

This deal with the devil was
described by DWP officials on Tuesday as a cost saving measure – a statement
that went unchallenged by the commissioners.

The doublethink logic is pure DWP,
typical of officials who for so long have operated in a culture where denial,
deflection and deceit are a way of life and honesty and integrity are punished.

Giving workers a lump sum payment
instead of a raise this year doesn’t add to their base pay so it doesn’t add
any more to the costs of pensions so in their minds of DWP officials. The same
logic was used to describe a 15 percent loss in the pension fund’s value as a
gain because it had fallen 20 percent before the stock market’s recovery.

The biggest among the many
problems with that is the DWP already is paying 30 cents on top of every dollar
of payroll into the pension fund and expects to be paying 70 cents of every
dollar of payroll into the pension fund within five years.

That doesn’t leave much for solar
and wind energy, new water main pipes or upgrades to the electrical grid
unless, of course, rates to the public skyrocket.

And that’s exactly what the DWP
wants, what the commission is set to approve and the City Council and mayor are
ready to sign off on.

Where in any of this are the “voices
of city residents” being heard?

The failure of the DWP Commission
to fulfill its duties as the public’s voice, its watchdog and protector, is why
Patsaouras and so many community activists are calling for creation of an
independent Rate Payer Advocate’s office.

Personally, I don’t think it goes
anywhere near far enough.

Charter reform has failed.

This isn’t a government at all
but a dictatorship of special interests. Only massive structural reform, the
creation of boroughs with elected and empowered local officials who come from
the community can finally bring some semblance of democracy to
Los Angeles.

And that’s only going to happen
of the community looks beyond that specific issues and problems that are so
troubling and see that the problem is the system itself – a system that is
setting the stage for real change because of its financial and moral bankruptcy.

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25 Responses to The Failure of Reform, Part I: The LA Commission System

  1. ellen vukovich says:

    While I haven’t gone before the DWP Commission, I can speak with some relative experience thanks to appearances before the Planning Commissions.
    Basically, I have yet to see them ever really hear our voices.
    First of all, unless we are an appellant, we are limited to two minutes of time within which to plead our case. Imagine having to condense something you have worked on for years into sound bytes sufficient to rouse interest? That has lead us to go to extraordinary efforts to have sufficient speakers on hand willing to give up their time so we can state our case.
    This has also happened to us (that “us” is Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association) when we have had to go before our Neighborhood Council.
    Of course, developers and their representatives usually have as much time as they need.
    And, yes – PLUM is no different as is the Council.
    My point is that so long as any commissioner is a political appointee, the cards are staked against the communities. We should put informed leaders in place by a public vote as opposed to the Mayor.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Mayor Villaraigosa accepts bribes for jobs…

  3. anonymous says:

    The premise of a rate payers’ advocate is what the commissioners should have been. Like the commissioners, the advocate will be beholden to the person who appoints him/her.
    For anyone to think that this person would actually represent the rate payers is to think that this is truly a democracy.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “the problem is the system itself – a system that is setting the stage for real change because of its financial and moral bankruptcy.”
    Yep. It’s not the players. It’s the game. It’s emotionally satisfying to yell and scream and stamp our feet about the mayor, councilmembers and commissioners, but it’s ultimately useless. When it comes to government reform for Los Angeles, the conversation needs to be about a new City Charter, preferably written from scratch.
    I realize that Ron has thrown Chris Essel under the bus because D’Arcy is placing a bet on her, but as a CD2 voter I am supporting her because she has talked about initiating charter reform since the beginning of the race. Krekorian, at the most recent debate, said he’d be able to make “real change” or something and that Essel’s call for Charter reform is an “making excuses.” That’s bogus – and what’s really scary is that he seemed to actually believe it.
    Would love to see Ron turn his piercing intelligence towards a campaign for a new City Charter as opposed to fruitless attempts for some kind of white/nimby/republican/valley/neighborhood council revolution that will never go anywhere.
    Boroughs would work. Smaller/cheaper council districts that are the size of actual NEIGHBORHOODS, would preclude the need for the useless NC system, that could work too, especially if combined w/ clean money elections.
    Kudos to Ron to starting a more constructive conversation. Hope the blog continues in this vein.

  5. anonymous says:

    The problem with the commissions is due to the Charter. The mayor can hire and fire easily without any of the checks, balances and protections that use to be in place. When a commissioner does “resign” and leaks out the truth, it is news for a day and gone tomorrow. It is also the commissioner’s word against the mayor’s and his press team.
    Presently, all new commissioners pre-sign a resignation letter upon being appointment. That way, resignations are ready to occur at a moment’s notice. The commissioners are told what to do and how to vote. They must be completely supportive of the GMs’, union’s and mayor’s agenda. Every now and then there’s a commissioner that doesn’t follow the status quo. Since that one commissioner is outvoted by the other four, it lends the appearance of an “independent body” that is anything but independent. In addition, commission presidents are pre-selected by the mayor and commissioners are told who to vote for.
    My personal feeling is commissions should be eliminated. They are an extension and a front for the mayor.
    I would suggest a change to the Charter, however, there is a benefit to the ease that exists in the hiring and the firing GMs. Prior to the Charter change, there were so many lobbyists influencing Council members, that made the firing of GMs nearly impossible. Of course, that applies to the mayor and his lobbyists, but it seemed virtually impossible to fire general managers in the past. While the present mayor makes one think that this process should change, given his horrible choices, at least we know where the buck stops. The same, unfortunately, applies to commissioners and that’s where the Charter has failed.
    Add to that the mayor and council catering to the whims of unions and it’s easy (and sad) to see what’s happening. Then, there’s the developers who are learning to include unions in their projects and axis of evil is cemented in.
    Perhaps Neighborhood Councils can replace commissions. However, they’d have to file financial disclosures and they don’t seem to want to do that. It’s the only way they can up their powers of influence, or be in a position to demand that. Commissioners have to do that in order to recommend new codes and amendments. The problem there is they are no longer independent bodies. NC’s can be that, but it’s only fair that the public knows they have no potential personal financial gain.

  6. Anonymous says:

    C`mon Ron. Wendy is the unbiased fiscal watchdog, especially of D`Arcy. Hahahahsahahahahaha

  7. Anonymous says:

    A major problem is the current system where one person and only one person, the Mayor gets to select the Commissioners. Obviously, there will be no independence in voting from these peas in a pod. There are other cities like Pasadena, where each Councilmember selects a commissioner from their own districts, and the Mayor gets his pick citywide so there is diversity of interests, thinking and independence.

  8. Elliott Broidy, a Mayor Villaraigosa appointee to the Fire & Police Pensions who resigned in May, has just plead guilty to fraud in a New York State ccourt in connection with bribing pension fund officals. He agreed to forfeit $18 million. Plus, up to four years in the slammer.
    Of bigger concern to the political class is that Broidy, as part of his plea bargain, has no doubt agreed to cooperate with the authorities.
    This scandal has legs.
    PS. In addition, union leader Sean Harrigan, another Villraigosa appointee, resigned from the Fire & Police Pension Plans in May, again in connection with the ever growing “pay to play” scandal involving public pension plans.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Not only does the Mayor appoint all the commissioners, but also appoints all the General Managers (GMs). Clearly, the two have to work hand in glove or have their heads chopped off by the Mayor.
    Riordan, a self-made corporate raider/millionare who implemented these Charter changes had no idea that these powers could be assumed by a Mayor who did not fit the bill. In the current case, an intellectually challenged Mayor with no interest in the real job of running the City, other than having fun, or taking decisive action or addressing issues before they become disasters like the budget, and numerous others, has assumed powers way beyond than he should.
    It also creates a huge conflict between the commissioners who are supposed to be representing the interests of the citizens vs the GMs who are at the beck and call of the Mayor. If all that the commissioners are going to do is follow the will of the Mayor, than why have them in the first place. Eliminate an unnecessary layer that serves no purpose, other than give the illusion to the community that they have a voice.
    This conflict further highlights the purpose of having the Civil Service which was intended to be a quasi-judicial entity that would exercise independent judgement free of pressures of any kind. The reality, however, is that the system as it currently exists corrodes the intent of protecting Civil Service employees from political repurcussions, while exercising professional judgement, now being subject to a GM under the sway of the Mayor and his special interests. What integrity does this system seek to provide – an employee is now directly subject to political presssure with punitive actions taken by the GM for protecting her/his own self-interest. Our constitution was created to provide checks and balances on all branches of government, which have been clearly eroded under the current system.
    If we ever do another Charter reform than all ramifications need to be understood. And don’t include just “Constitutional” professors, who from their ivory towers have no idea about the reality on the ground. It has to be all inclusive; community members of all stripes and employees from within who can give you the true reality of how every good intention is manipulated by the politicians. Lastly, Charter reform did not totally elimiate the powers of the City Council, who currently stand on the side without a voice or challenge. In this case it is not the system, but the undeserving cowards/establishment crap elected to these positions.

  10. Anonymous says:


  11. Anonymous says:

    I agree with most of what 2:04 said and have said it before on this blog. The problem is that the GM is the mayor’s btch. On top of that, you have a commission full of lawyers who are supposed to be educated enough to check a pubic utility? Same with the GM’s, who are usually lawyers.
    Get some engineers on the commission instead of all these damn lawyers. Patsouras was an engineer. He also was an azzhole but his engineering background helped him see through a lot of the BS. And he wasn’t supportive of Nahai at all. The guy was fed up to the point where if something didn’t make sense, he’d assume managers were trying to screw over the public and would start yelling about it. Sometimes he was wrong but at least he was actively trying to do his job. If he hadn’t come up with the stupid idea of leaving the commission to run against Gruel (which he would have never won because, he’s an azzhole), the commission would still be more than just 5 lame ducks.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Hey Jack H,
    Guess what else about Broidy? He was the Republican National Committee Finance Chair during the George Bush 2004 Re-Election campaign.
    How did he end up with Villaraigosa?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Well, one thing came out of Charter Reform: The new Charter is 10 times easier to read and understand the structure of the City government. Does anyone remember the Rube Goldberg contraption of the Charter before it was overhaulted in 1999? You could not find anything in that damn thing.
    That said, I do agree that Neighborhood Councils are mostly a joke and what is really needed is a borough system. As the City slips toward bankruptcy, now is the time to rid ourselves of the “fiefdoms of fifteen”. Power MUST be devolved down to the community level or this City is just going to blow apart.

  14. James McCuen says:

    There were originally two Charter Reform Commissions – one that was elected by the voters and one that was appointed by the City Council.
    The City Council didn’t want their power diluted to Neighborhood Councils, just like they didn’t want the City Controller (Chick) to investigate their offices. So the original idea of allowing NC’s to veto decisions made by the City Council was quashed.
    But I have mixed feeling about NC’s especially if they had veto power. Some NC’s are very active and hard working and reach out to stakeholders. Others are more narrowly focused and have conflict issues. But you can’t say much about most individual Councilmembers either, so maybe a veto power would be a check-and-balance that would put NC’s in the driver’s seat.

  15. Anonymous says:

    One of the bad things about Charter reform of 1999 was the creation of many more exempt (exempt for Civil Service) Manager positions.

  16. Anonymous says:

    While it is easier to now fire City Managers, they have created havoc with the Civil Service where rules and regulations are flouted to suit their personal whims and fancies. Either way the Mayor and his cronies win at the expense of the communities.

  17. Anonymous says:

    If there are examples of the Mayor or General Managers corruptly evading the Civil Service protections of the City, it OUGHT to be investigated.
    Mayor Shaw was ousted in 1938 when it was discovered that he was involved in the corrupt selling of positions at City Hall. Today corruption is more subtle but just a corrosive to the integrity of our City.
    Why don’t we have a District Attorney willing take on the corruption with some criminal charges? Failure to enforce Ethics and Anti-Corruption laws will bring down our City.

  18. anonymous says:

    By Anonymous on December 4, 2009 @ 12:53 PM
    “If there are examples of the Mayor or General Managers corruptly evading the Civil Service protections of the City, it OUGHT to be investigated.”
    Who and where does one report this? Nothing comes of it with Ethics.

  19. Anonymous says:

    “a mayor who is given to giving them marching orders, sending his staff to commission meetings to make sure they deliver and brow-beating them when they defy him”.
    The one who usually shows up at Planning Commission meetings is hard to miss. She is tall and wears very short skirts & dresses, and high heels (the uniform de riguer in the Mayor’s office for females) with a scowl on her face. She prefers to stand up at the aisle, to be seen better by the Commission. And of course, she is dumb as hell, a requirement in the Mayor’s office.

  20. Anonymous says:

    5:11pm You forgot the glasses

  21. Anonymous says:

    6:14, you are right. And before I forget, in the summer she wears shorts to the meetings.

  22. Remember Measure B? says:

    Sorry, I have not had the time to follow CD2. So where are Essel and Krekorian on “Measure B”?
    This should be brought to their attention again. Because we are seeing “Son of a B” now.
    Krekorian is a “Green”. The “Greens” were all “Yes on Measure B”. So were the Dems.
    So you in CD 2 need to get some committments from these people before you make your decision.
    Who do you chose – the Mayor’s Choice or the Democrat’s Choice – both of which will in the end please the Mayor.
    Can anyone tell me why we vote in this City anymore?
    Shouldn’t we have our own ballot initiative that really reflects some real Charter Amendment Change?

  23. Anonymous says:

    To Anonymous on December 4, 2009 12:53 PM
    Maybe you are sincere, and I will assume that you are innocently targeting the City Attorney because of your naivety.

  24. Anonymous says:

    To Dec. 3 7:19 pm
    There are approximately 4 million people living in Los Angeles, of these denizens, only 1.5 are registered to vote in L.A.. A N.C. stakeholder is defined as “anyone who lives, works or owns property in a neighborhood”….knowing that other abutted cities, developers, special interest groups, unions, etc., have influence over the city of angels’ political arena; then it behooves US to reconcile these voting inequities. We need to make our elected officials accountable to all whom live in Los Angeles. Is this possible? What distinguishes between a citizen and a “stakeholder”? Would any professor of law like to explain these discrepancies? Please advise.

  25. "Wait until the Neighborhood Council Elections" says:

    According to the City Clerk’s documents on Neighborhood Council Elections, this is the definition of a “stakeholder”:
    “Neighborhood Council membership is open to all Stakeholders. “Stakeholders” shall be defined as those who live, work, or own property in the neighborhood or to those who declare a stake in the neighborhood and affirm the factual basis for
    In other words, you do not have to be a resident of the City of Los Angeles to vote in the Neighborhood Council elections. You could live in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Burbank, and other cities – but if you demonstrate to the City Clerk why you are a stakeholder,you will be able to vote in the NC elections.
    Of course, the City Clerk is not sending that information out to anyone,so the only people that will understand that are the Neighborhood Council members, those who are active in their NC’s now, the City Council and some other City Departments.
    Of course this will mean that the developers or whoever will be able to pack the NC elections with whoever they want – or the opposition to those they do not want.
    I think there could be some real excitement in some of these elections next year.
    I guess I should say – “hold on to your seats Neighborhood Council members”. The “climate” next year could be rough for those who have opposed the City Government. Does this mean “global warming” in the coming year or a “cooling off period”?

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