Thursday, May 21, 2009
1898 Effort to Bring Reform to City Is Wide-Ranging
By ROGER M. GRACE
Within the ranks of Republicans, Democrats, Silver Republicans, Populists, Socialists and Prohibitionists in the late 1890s, there were many in the City of Los Angeles who shared the goals of ending the political spoils system and bringing about other reforms aimed at boosting popular control of city government and prodding above-board conduct at City Hall. Lewis A. Groff, the subject of my current batch of columns, was one of the 15 members of the “Board of Freeholders” who in 1898 drafted a proposed new charter for the City of Los Angeles that sought to effectuate these goals.
While service on the board was a relatively minor episode in Groff’s career, the endeavor in 1898 to enact a new charter incorporating “modern” governmental concepts was a major occurrence in the city’s history. Fresh and bubbling concepts came under public discussion then, leading to pioneering measures in Los Angeles, now part of standard municipal procedures nationwide.
Established lawyers like Groff and staid businessmen—who dominated the board and comprised the membership of influential organizations—were no less ardent that year in their advocacy of needed change than the radical elements in the city. In essence, the “good folk,” across the political spectrum, wanted to dump the bosses.
The very existence of the Board of Freeholders was both a reflection of progress that had been made and the continuation of stagnation. The state constitutional provision enacted in 1879 authorizing such boards—Art. XI, §8—advanced the cause of popular control of local government…but skidded short of honoring the concept of equal protection. Under the provision, an election would be called upon petition, with an adequate number of signatures, to select members of a board of freeholders who would draft a proposed charter. That document, the section says, “shall be submitted to the qualified electors of said city at a general or special election; and if a majority of such qualified electors voting thereat shall ratify the same, it shall thereafter be submitted to the Legislature for its approval or rejection as a whole, without power of alteration or amendment.”
Underlying that procedure were elements of the “initiative” process (by which the electorate originates legislation) and the “referendum” (where questions are submitted to the electorate). It was democratic…well, to a point.
Aside from the hitch that the state lawmakers could override the will of the people in a locality, membership on the board was restricted to landowners, and further confined to those who had held property in the city for at least five years. Membership was denied to women…who had not yet attained the right to vote.
Groff and his colleagues crafted a proposed governing instrument which would have set up a department of water and a department of electricity and created a municipally owned water company (in sum, establishing something along the lines of the current Department of Water and Power), and the introduction of a civil service system.
Too. it would have shifted from the City Council to the mayor the power to appoint members of city commissions. The mayor was, at the time—as an Oct. 31 editorial in the Times sets forth—an “ornamental figurehead.”
The proposed charter would have staggered terms of members of commissions so they would not all be appointees of any given mayor.
Four-year terms for office-holders would have been instituted, rather than the two-year terms which then existed.
Innovatively, the proposed charter called for “off-year” elections for city offices. Rather than continuing to hold city elections in even years—just a few weeks after the federal, state and county elections—the proposed charter would have moved city elections to odd years, the notion being that such elections would be shielded from the partisan influences surrounding the even-year campaigns.
All of this is now in place.
Chief among the reforms that were sought was the inclusion, though on a limited basis, of the initiative and referendum. The Oct. 6 edition of the Times provides this summary:
“Upon petition by 15 per cent. of the voters at the last general municipal election, asking for the adoption of any ordinance of a general nature, the Council must either pass the ordinance, or submit it to the vote of the people at the next general municipal election. This will enable the people to force the Council, if unwilling, to submit any desired amendments to the charter, as well as to control the municipal policy of any important question.”
Too, by petition, a vote could be forced by voters on any proposed acquisition of a public utility.
The opportunity was there in 1898 for the citizenry to take charge of city government, and clean it up. Would the proposed charter be approved? The outcome of the election will be discussed next week.
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