When I worked in City Hall, my boss, Mayor Tom Bradley got snared into a rather convoluted scandal involving his membership on a bank’s board of directors, and his alleged efforts in 1989 to steer some of the city’s short-term cash deposits to that bank.
I admire Tom Bradley, and took his explanation on face value — that the president of the bank called him and said something like, “The city has all this money to deposit, and it only deposits with traditional banks. Newer banks like mine, that are owned by minorities, aren’t getting any of the action.” To Tom Bradley, discrimination like this was what he was in office to fix, so he referred the matter to the people who made these decisions.
Bradley was wrong not to notice the potential conflict of interest in his request, and was wrong not to realize that a request like this from “Da Mayor” would be interpreted by city staff as either a regal command, or an improper one, or both. He should have couched his request as a “for instance.” Undoubtedly, the president of his bank had a point about the city’s cash deposit policies. But Bradley should’ve realized he wasn’t the guy to address it on behalf of a bank that paid him to be on its board. I’m certain Bradley had no untoward intent, and federal investigators eventually agreed.
All this is prelude to today’s story about a movement among Los Angeles business and civic leaders to stretch term limits for the City Council and, possibly, the mayor and other citywide officials from two terms to three.
Term limits on councilmembers was one of the consequences of Bradley’s banking scandal, which prompted a City Hall ethics reform wave. Back in 1990, City Hall types talked about it all the time. People took principled positions:
- Term limit opponents saw it as a denial of democratic rights. If you like your councilmember enough to keep them in office for 20 years, you shouldn’t be deprived of the right to re-elect them.
- Supporters saw it as a way to break up powerful fiefdoms. Once these councilmembers got entrenched in office, it was impossible to defeat them, because they could use their incumbency to extract campaign contributions, and to starve any foes from getting any. Only a total incompetent or a crook could be ousted from office, the theory went. And even then, incumbency gave an incumbent a big advantage.
My position was that the city should try a “pilot program” — so we could get rid of the current crop of incumbents, but not change the democratic system. I was sort of joking, probably because term limits seemed so beside the point.
The problem with the city council, as well as the state legislature, is non-competitive elections. Nobody deserved to win elective office without a serious challenge that would force a discussion of the issues. If they could survive serious challenges for 20 or 30 years, God bless their good fortune and talent.
But throughout California, the system is rigged to give virtually all incumbents, and many of their anointed successors, a free ride. Careerist politicians are still careerist politicians; they just move around more to outrun term-limited unemployment, forming convenient alliances with other politicians to permit job recycling, and promoting friends and former aides to replace them.
How is this possible? The public is not happy with their government, including the City of Los Angeles. Turnout is ridiculously, shamefully low in elections, with even civic-minded folk gradually falling off because the results are usually foregone conclusions for legislative seats.
In my opinion, the rigging begins every ten years when new district lines are drawn. These district lines not only look funny, they are designed to frustrate the democratic process. It’s not just that gerrymandered districts help scoop up like-minded or culturally similar voters, which is what everyone knows about the practice. It’s that they carve communities up that might otherwise organize and fight for power.
When I lived in Park La Brea, you could climb up the roof of one of those towers and look out on four council districts. Obviously, those four members didn’t want everyone in the Miracle Mile/Fairfax area to have enough power to unite behind a local leader. They wanted us to be as confused and disorganized as possible, and make it tough for any newcomer to command enough attention from a geographically contiguous area to mount a challenge to an entrenched incumbent.
Term limits didn’t fix this problem, and weren’t designed to. Combining gerrymandered districts with term limits guaranteed that local and legislative politics would be as insider-y as possible.
I do agree with this point from today’s story:
“Whether it is the airport or the ports or the Wilshire Corridor, the difficulty of getting things done requires a good deal of time and a sustained commitment to a vision,” said George Kieffer, a partner at the Manatt, Phelps & Phillips law firm and a key player in the Civic Alliance. “That’s more and more difficult to do with people looking at short-term horizons and other offices.”
In City Hall, things move so slowly, you can’t expect to see anything through in just eight years, especially if you spend the first two learning your job, your next two running for re-election, and your last two running for a new office, assuming you stay that long.
The City itself, a shambling, inefficient but vital operation, needs a kind of unconditional tough-love and vigilant attention from its Council and mayor. The current crop of elected officials act more like tourists, marvelling at some things, jumping in fright at others, but never really settling in long enough to understand all its dimensions.
So if someone wants to consider dumping or modifying term limits, I think that’s good. But before committing to that single tactic, I suggest some goals clarification questions to the Civic Alliance (which apparently doesn’t have a website, by the way):
Is the only thing you want longer terms? Don’t you really want better governance? How is better governance achieved? How can we increase voter involvement and turnout? How can we make elections more competitive? How can we ensure our elected officials are more responsive, responsible and vested in the city’s success?
*revised 6/26/06 evening.