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Los Angeles Doesn’t Need a City Council

LA WATCHING - Please! Pretty please! With azúcar on top! I beg you—Kevin de León and Gilbert Cedillo—not to resign your seats on the Los Angeles City Council like Nury Martinez did.

Instead, I’m imploring you to stick around, and brazen this scandal out.  The people of Los Angeles need you, their power-hungry representatives, disgraced by a tape of your racist insults against nearly every demographic in town.  Why?  So they can have the pleasure of firing you themselves!

Sticking around to be fired could galvanize change in city governance. Because resignations can’t cure what ails Los Angeles and its governing body. Nor can reforming the city council within the existing charter.  Abolition is the only real solution.  Which means both your 12 other colleagues and your entire institution need to go, too. Now is the moment to dissolve the Los Angeles City Council, which has never been anything more than an embarrassing and powerless failure. Unless we want more of the racist politics caught on tape, unless we want more of the conflict over redistricting that inspired your awful conversation, we don’t need a city council. The people of Los Angeles can do the job themselves.

The tools and the concept now exist. L.A. is perfectly positioned to be the first city in California to replace its city council with a citizens’ assembly.

Elections require big money that can compromise politicians. A citizens’ assembly, by contrast, is chosen by lottery. Los Angeles can design lottery processes to make sure the assembly is representative of its city by race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, class, neighborhood, and just about any other factor we like.

L.A. would be a Californian and American pioneer in this, but not a global one. Paris just established a permanent citizens’ assembly; a Belgian province also has one. Countries from Japan to Ireland have established such bodies after breakdowns in trust in public officials, with the goal of addressing difficult issues from abortion to climate change.

L.A., by switching from an elected council to a lottery-based panel, would be doing more than just advancing democracy. It would be jettisoning a broken system.

What you heard on that tape of the three council members and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Ron Herrera wasn’t just four powerful people spewing hatred. You heard what a thoroughly broken system sounds like.

The Los Angeles city council has never been representative of the cityIt’s simply too small for that—with 15 members for 4 million people, L.A. city councilmembers have far too many constituents (more than 260,000 each) to represent them all properly. Global cities of similar population typically have more than 100 council members.

The city council has always been a weak player in L.A.’s complex and progressive governing structure, with its many boards and commissions. The council is even weaker than the mayor, whose powers remain limited, and the city’s department heads, who live in fear of their unionized employees. It doesn’t help that this weak council exists within a weak city government: This is California, where voters have spent decades centralizing tax and budgeting power at the state level.

Holding so little power, city councilmembers spend much of their time doing what they did on that tape—talking shit and playing games. Martinez, de León, and Cedillo were plotting and whining not about the city’s problems but their own seats, their own power, and how the redistricting commission was drawing their own districts. They talked frequently on the tape about wanting to have more big “assets” in their districts—by which they mean wealthy companies or institutions that would have to give them money for their campaigns, and favors for their friends.

Councilmembers not captured on the tape play these games, too; that’s how they get into office in the first place. That’s why you’ve seen them respond not with pledges to change how they behave and do business, but with condemnations, and calls for their colleagues’ resignations.

With a citizens’ assembly, the games stop. There will be no redistricting process because there will be no districts. There will be no need for scheming meetings with union bosses who politically control the city council. And there should be no racist rhetoric or racial conflict over council elections, because there wouldn’t be any council elections.

The lottery replaces the elections. A representative sampling of the people become the legislature. Transparent, public meetings replace secretly recorded backroom discussions. And more people can participate—the assembly should have at least 200 members.

This can, and should, happen fast. Good government groups should file a charter amendment to abolish the city council and replace it with a citizens’ assembly right away. Citizens need to push the new mayor to recognize the structural failure, and commit to holding a special election on the charter amendment early in the new year.

Then, the people of L.A. will have the opportunity to live a dream and fire their failed politicians, so they can take up the work of local democracy themselves.

By staying in office until you’re fired, Kevin and Gilbert, you can serve as inspiration for this change in governance, reminding Angelenos why we don’t need you or the system that made you—and why local democracy is one of those things that everyday people should do for themselves.

(Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.)