Charter Reform or Feel Good Propaganda?

Stephen Downing

“Governments tend not to solve problems, only to rearrange them.” – Ronald Reagan

One of the most common practices by politicians is to create a solution before defining the problem – and these days the solution is usually one that benefits the politicians’ own self-interest. Such is the case with at least three of the five initiatives advanced by Mayor Robert Garcia to amend the Long Beach City Charter.

In proclaiming support for the mayor’s charter initiatives Councilman Al Austin said, “Without public confidence we have nothing.”

Austin’s statement is dead on. But we find nothing in three of the proposed Charter initiatives – as written – that will improve public confidence in the governance of our city.

Mayor Garcia’s 12-year term limit proposal that he propagandizes as “strengthening term limits” is nothing more than a rearrangement of earlier campaign law reforms that will not benefit the public. Its only benefit is to political careerists.

The Redistribution Committee made up of citizens designed to redraw council districts that could rein in the corruption of political gerrymandering is a noble idea and would make a contribution to better representation, but Garcia’s crafting of the amendment insures that whatever the citizen committee comes up with can be deep-sixed if our sitting politicians don’t like it.

The same goes for the Citizen Ethics Commission advanced by the mayor as a showpiece of progressive values. It looks good but the way it is written insures that, if in the end the politicians do not like what the citizen commissioners may decide is an ethics violation, that too can be sent to the deep dark hole of City Hall cover-ups.

A good example of this kind of showpiece charter reform is the manner in which City Hall crafted the charter initiative to establish the Citizen Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) 28 years ago.

That reform measure was promoted as a solution to a well-defined (exposed) problem of police corruption, brutality and racial bias. It is used to this day as a marketing tool to lead the public into believing that their complaints are honestly, independently and effectively investigated and reviewed by the CPCC’s nine citizen commissioners.

The problem with that charter change is that City Hall crafted the measure in a manner that insured the work (and hire/fire authority) of the CPCC staff remained under City Hall control and that all decisions made by the citizen commissioners would not only be kept from public scrutiny, but rendered toothless by making them “advisory only” – just as the crafting of the proposed ethics and redistricting commissions will be advisory only (and toothless) showpieces if passed by the electorate.

This column has often defined the problems associated with the corruptions of the Police Department and the ineffectual theatre of the CPCC used by City Hall to promote a false image of the department’s professionalism; one of the most recent being the city manager’s “unfounded” classification of the LBPD cover-up surrounding the Councilwoman Pearce scandal – in spite of the (opposite and concealed) findings made by the nine CPCC citizen commissioners.

So, with past experience as a guide, we’d like to recommend that the problems of the LBPD and the impotence of the CPCC, that have been well defined on manifold occasions in this column over the past five years, be fixed.

We urge the City Council to honestly draft and promote a charter amendment that creates a truly effective system of police/civilian oversight by modifying the provisions of the CPCC charter to achieve – at a minimum – the following:

The mayor, subject to City Council ratification, should appoint a board of five police commissioners.

The board of police commissioners should have policy authority over the police department and hire-and-fire authority for an executive director and an inspector general, each to be provided with the necessary authorities and personnel to investigate, audit and make public recommendations to the board related to all police functions.

The chief of police should be hired from a list of three candidates selected by the police commission and forwarded to the mayor. The mayor must select from the list of three, subject to City Council confirmation.

The chief of police should be hired under contract for a five-year period, subject to renewal by the police commission for one additional five-year period and no longer.

The chief of police should be given disciplinary authority over all members of the department subject to civil service or court appeal.

The board of police commissioners should have the authority to terminate the chief of police for cause, subject to mayoral and City Council approval.

The City Council should have the power to remove the chief of police by a two-thirds vote.

As Councilman Austin said, “Without public confidence we have nothing.” This fix can provide for more than confidence. It can be the catalyst for a greater level of public trust in our police department – and permit more light to penetrate and disinfect the deep dark hole of City Hall cover-ups.

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police.


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