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Los Angeles Residents Want Greater Say in Local Affairs - 2003-08-01


Los Angeles has problems similar to other major cities, such as crime, congestion and racial tensions. A recent survey shows that residents worry that local government is not addressing these issues.

That's the bad news, says Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California. The good news is that residents appreciate the greater representation given local communities through new neighborhood councils that advise city government.

"If anything, they're looking for more local government representation," said Mr. Baldassare. "Two-thirds of residents in our survey said they want to see the city of Los Angeles broken up into boroughs, and they want to see their big school district broken up into smaller school districts. Ninety percent of L.A. county residents said that this experiment with the neighborhood council idea in L.A. was a good idea. It was something that was bringing things to a more local level for them."

Mr. Baldassare adds that the poll of 2,000 residents shows that most want some restructuring of local government to give all of the city's people a greater voice.

The analyst says Los Angeles, the largest city in California, offers a glimpse into the future of the state. The city is nearly half Hispanic and about 30 percent non-Hispanic white. African-Americans and Asian-Americans each represent about 10 percent of residents.

A magnet for immigration, Los Angeles has attracted many poor, unskilled workers, and has a large population of low-income minorities. At the other end of the scale are well-paid professionals and successful business owners, some native born and some from other countries. County supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy, who spoke on a panel on the future of Los Angeles, says it is divided into separate communities that have little in common.

"We have those who are represented in this room, who vote in every election, I hope, who contribute to campaigns once in a while, who know how to get hold of their elected officials if you have to," he said.

On the other side are those with little involvement in politics, who rely on local government to provide basic services, such as free health care.

Nearly 20 percent of Los Angeles residents live under the poverty line, in neighborhoods that residents view as dangerous. The survey shows that members of minority groups are worried about crime, but only one-third of whites in affluent parts of the city share that worry.

All residents are concerned about issues like education, the economy, heavy traffic and high housing costs.

Los Angeles is a patchwork of local governments. The county has 90,000 employees and oversees basic services. But its 10 million-person jurisdiction includes 88 separate cities with their own bureaucracies, police and fire departments. The largest is the city of Los Angeles.

Political scientist Raphael Sonnenshein says most California communities have separate city and county structures, and he thinks the county structure is inefficient. Within California, only San Francisco has a consolidated government, with a mayor who oversees most local agencies.

"Fifty seven out of the 58 counties do not have a county-wide elected official called a county executive or county mayor," explained Mr. Sonnenshein. "They all have a form of government that used to be called the commission form, where five county supervisors have all the legislative and executive power together."

And in Los Angeles, each county supervisor represents about two million people.

According to analyst Mark Baldassare, most residents want smaller jurisdictions, and would like a structure that gives them even greater local autonomy.

"People are looking for more transparency in their government, they're looking for more accountability, they're looking for more local representation," he said. "And so what L.A. county residents are telling us is that they feel that on the local level, they need more of their own involvement and more of their own ideas and say-so in the decisions that are made, and they feel that maybe the structures in L.A. county have gotten too big today and are not doing that job for them."

He says support for converting Los Angeles into a system of semi-autonomous boroughs is greatest in the San Fernando Valley, where seven in 10 people support the concept. Most residents in other parts of the city also endorse it.

A proposal to create a separate Valley city failed last year, despite strong support in that suburban region, which is home to both middle-class whites and Latino immigrants.