Thursday, May 28, 2009
1898 Proposed City Charter Fails at the Polls
By ROGER M. GRACE
“Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.”
Those were the words of Alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler after Richard J. Daley—who was the antithesis of a reformer—bagged the Democratic nomination for mayor of the Windy City on Feb. 22, 1955.
Likewise, Los Angeles was not ready for reform in 1898. A proposed new charter came before voters on Dec. 5. It was stuffed with progressive measures such as the initiative and referendum. Voters turned it down by a vote of 6,809 in favor it, and 8,174 against.
All three major daily newspapers in Los Angeles—the Herald, a Democratic organ, and the Times and the Express, both in the Republican camp—bemoaned the outcome in the next day’s edition.
An editorial in the Herald declares:
“The most lamentable feature of yesterday’s vote was the decisive defeat of the proposed new charter. It will probably be a long time before fifteen of our ablest citizens will again consent to give so much thought, labor and time to drafting a charter, only to be rebuked by over two thousand votes.”
Actually, it was 1,365 votes, but it’s true that the Board of Freeholders, which included attorney Lewis A. Groff, devoted substantial effort to the drafting of the rebuffed document.
“It is greatly to be regretted that the proposed new charter failed to secure the approval of the majority of the voters,” an editorial in the Times says, continuing:
“While it was possibly not faultless in every detail, it would undoubtedly have proved, had it been adopted, much better adapted to the present and future needs of the city than the present charter. It would, however, have shortened the term of office of the men elected yesterday, and it is presumable that the candidates of both parties and their friends were not, therefore, favorably disposed toward it.”
The proposed charter, if ratified by the Legislature, would have provided for off-year elections for city officers and those elected in 1898 to two-year terms apparently would have had their terms truncated and been obliged to face voters again in 1899. New terms would have been for four years.
The Express’s editorial observes:
“The cause of yesterday’s defeat may be ascribed to two leading factors, the concentration of authority and power in the Mayor, and the opposition of the professional politicians and office-seekers, whose opportunities were greatly circumscribed by the reforms provided.”
Institution of a civil service system would have thwarted political patronage by ward bosses. Appointment of commissioners would have shifted from the City Council to the mayor, and the posts of city attorney, city engineer, and street superintendent—for which partisan elections were held under the existing charter—would have become appointive.
The editorial hails the composition of the Board of Freeholders, saying: “It is greatly to be doubted of a more representative or a more capable board could have been selected if a dozen elections had been held.”
It goes on to say:
“Their intentions were good, the results of their efforts praiseworthy, and their work, even though it has been rejected, has not been without results, because it will eventually prove another step forward in the never ending campaign of municipal education.”
The Express was right as to the charter fight being educative. It familiarized voters with certain concepts. It was wrong, however, in a prediction that “[C]harter-making will doubtless be given a rest for some time to come.”
In February, 1902, a Charter Revision Committee was formed comprised of the mayor, city attorney, city engineer, nine members of the City Council, and eight citizens…including attorneys Albert B. Crutcher, Henry O’Melveney and Joseph Scott. The objective was to gain voter approval of amendments to the existing charter, with each proposed change being voted upon separately.
Los Angeles was ready for reform. At a special election on Dec. 1, 1902, sweeping charter amendments were approved, and ratified by the Legislature the following year.
The citizenry gained a chisel—the initiative—with which it could sculpt local government into the shape it wanted, and it gained the referendum. The vote was 10,433 for, 1,708 against.
The people gained a further power—one not provided for in the proposed charter four years earlier: the recall. The vote was 8,430 “yes,” 2,248 “no.” According to the 1930 book “The Recall of Public Officers,” “The recall…, while suggested in the Articles of Confederation and discussed in the Federal Convention, first came into practical existence in this country in the charter of the City of Los Angeles in 1903.”
Creation of a Board of Civil Service Commissioners was approved by a 3-1 margin, and establishment of a Water Department, to be overseen by a Board of Water Commissioners which would supervise and control the water system, won by a margin of nearly 4-1.
Nearly all of the reforms sought in 1898 long ago were put into effect.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company