Governance in Los Angeles: Back to the Basics

Few would want to be in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's shoes. The Mayor, a tireless ally of public employee unions through his career is in the uncomfortable position of being forced to choose between his allies and the taxpayers. To his credit, as hard as it is, the Mayor seems inclined to favor the interests of the citizens who the city was established to serve in preference to the interests of those who are employed to serve the people. But the circumstances place the Mayor of having to approach the city's unions with an inappropriateness that lays bare fundamental flaws in the public sector collective bargaining arrangements that have emerged over the past one-half century. Noting that the unions have a choice between layoffs and cutting pay, the Mayor told The Wall Street Journal I was a union leader now. Rather than lay off workers and cut services, I'd agree to a pay cut.

The Mayor has been relegated to asking the city's unions to make decisions that should only be made by the city itself. The Mayor has asked the unions to accept pay cuts, so that impending public service cuts can be minimized. In effect, the unions are being asked to make a fundamental policy choice that should be the city's alone to make. The city of Los Angeles, the Mayor and the city council, are the legal policymaking body for the city of Los Angeles. There is no state statute or provision of the city charter that grants policy making authority to others.

Yet, under the public sector labor bargaining system that has emerged, the city may have no choice, unless it is willing to file Section 9 bankruptcy to void the union contracts and impose a solution that favors the interests of the citizenry. A predecessor, former Mayor Richard Riordan has called for such a filing. Short of that, perhaps the city should require some sort of a "sovereignty" clause in the next round of negotiation that permits labor contract provisions to be altered during emergency situations, so that public service levels can be preserved.

Whatever the solution, the union public policy authority is an ill-gotten gain. This is not to suggest that the unions are wrong for having exercised the power; that is only natural. However, they should never have been able to gain such a position.

It is fundamentally wrong for the city of Los Angeles and countless other municipal jurisdictions around the nation, to have abdicated its policy authority over recent decades. There is a need for a new public employment paradigm in which the incentives of governance favor the interests of the households that make up the cities, towns and counties.