Los Angeles
Let LA's People Redo Charter

The city's quasi-constitution is due for reform.

This story was first published as a Connecting California column by Zócalo Public Square.

If Los Angeles is going to rewrite its city charter, should everyday Angelenos take charge of the effort?

The people who run Los Angeles government are skeptical.

Mayor Karen Bass, City Council President Paul Krekorian, and other city leaders have called for reforming the city’s main governing document—a quasi-constitution that is called the charter—for the first time in a quarter-century.

The momentum for charter change has come from community groups, civic leaders and media who want to see changes to L.A.’s scandal-plagued city council. In recent years, there have been multiple indictments of top city staffers and of four city councilmembers, along with a leaked tape of three councilmembers and L.A.’s top labor leader making racially prejudiced comments.

With 15 members representing 4 million people, the L.A. council is simply too small to be representative of the city’s diversity, or to be close to everyday people, since each member represents more than 250,000 people. In fact, L.A.’s council is one of the smallest and least representative big-city councils in the world. (That of Seoul, which I recently visited, has 102 members.)

Changing the size or structure of the council requires amending the city charter. Bass, Krekorian, and other city leaders are developing plans for a November ballot measure that would create a charter reform commission.

But in preparing this ballot measure, they are moving toward giving themselves the power to appoint most of the charter reform commission members. The end result of this would likely be an establishment commission, mixing technocrats, lobbyists, and experts who are allied with the most powerful labor, corporate, and philanthropy groups in the city.

This approach is predictable. Elected officials and powerful institutions in L.A. have a longstanding unwillingness to cede power to regular people. But creating such a top-down commission makes it harder for Los Angeles to seize a historic opportunity to empower its people, incorporate promising 21st-century ideas into governance, and become a bigger player on the world stage.

A politician-appointed charter commission also badly misreads the current political moment in Los Angeles. If charter reform is led by political elites, it might be met with the same public disgust that started the call for reform in the first place.

There’s a better way forward—one that would have more political credibility and deliver more new ideas. Cities around the world have used “people’s assemblies” (also called citizens or civic assemblies) to tackle hard questions, incorporate the best local thinking, and implement reform.

Ireland, to take one example out of hundreds, used a people’s assembly to remake its constitution. Closer to L.A., in 2022, the Northern California city of Petaluma convened a lottery-based assembly to address a bitter controversy over land use.

The members of such civic assemblies are everyday people who are drawn by lot. The lotteries are managed with technology to assure that the resulting assembly represents its jurisdiction in terms of gender, race, neighborhood, and any other chosen factors. These assemblies are designed not merely to ensure representation, but to keep powerful people from dominating the debate. Studies of people’s assemblies also show that everyday people bring more diverse concerns and new ideas into governing processes. In Ireland’s constitution effort, for instance, the changes included legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage.

Using a people’s assembly to reform the Los Angeles charter would not freeze out politicians or powerful interest groups entirely. They could testify before the assembly. Nor would it leave mission-critical work to amateurs. Los Angeles’ commission, like others formed by sortition around the world, could have the power to hire experts and technocrats to answer questions and help with research.

When I’ve pressed key players in City Hall about this idea, they’ve deflected.

Many point to a measure on the November ballot that would create an independent redistricting commission. They note that that body would similarly consist of everyday Angelenos.

But they seem to regard a charter reform commission of everyday people as a bridge too far. They prefer a commission with city governance experts, major interest groups, and their own political allies. In short, elite Los Angeles has a narrow view of charter reform.

To be fair, the council president, Krekorian, has been a public voice for freeing the charter reform commission to take on whatever topics it wishes. He and other council members have also wisely proposed creating a new process for periodic reviews of the city charter that would allow for more frequent amendments and updates.

But picking a commission of political allies will likely limit the agenda to only obvious and pressing issues, like homelessness or public safety. An establishment commission has no need to advance novel ideas or change the fundamental governance structure, because those changes might make life harder for their political patrons.

Sticking to the status quo would be a missed opportunity. LA., like other American cities, retains the same outdated, 20th-century corporate structure—with separate departments for separate functions—that divides local government into bureaucratic fiefdoms.

This charter is an occasion to incorporate 21st-century practices into local democracy and to remake America’s most entertaining city for a faster, digital, more globalized age. A new L.A. charter should incorporate new democratic processes (including increased use of the lottery assemblies I propose for the commission) and digital environments that allow citizens to do more decision-making and governing.

More broadly, Los Angeles needs a governing structure that gives the city more power and flexibility to solve not just local problems, but to address planetary challenges that shape life here: the environment, health, the economy, and corruption.

Some of the best thinking on how to do this comes from Angelenos. In their forthcoming book, Children of a Modest Star: Planetary Thinking for an Age of Crises, Jonathan S. Blake and Nils Gilman of Los Angeles’ Berggruen Institute argue for linking the governance of different cities to better address planetary concerns. They envision more powerful municipalities working in collaboration with each other and world institutions to address the problems our faltering nation-states have failed to resolve.

“National states should give up many of their governance functions, tasks, and decision rights: planetary functions should move to planetary institutions, while many other functions should move to local institutions,” Blake and Gilman write.

A new charter could translate such ideas into reality. It could grant broad new authority to the city’s well-managed international affairs office, commit the city to solving planetary challenges, and outline a governing process for the city to form and join new global policy-making bodies with other local governments.   

These and other novel ideas are more likely to emerge from a charter reform commission consisting of everyday people who represent the diversity and madcap thinking of this city. New ideas are more likely to gain traction if they come from our neighbors.

So, let’s make the new charter a do-it-ourselves project.

L.A. Mayor Karen Bass. (from public domain, Bass for Mayor) https://www.flickr.com/photos/196386611@N05/52330368154