The precedents for Karen Bass’ homelessness emergency order

The City of New York charter isn’t what you’d call Christmas reading, but with a new mayor taking over in Los Angeles, one naturally wonders—well, I wonder—how this city’s highway code compares to this other big blue coastal city, which by the way has never had a female mayor.

Scanning the enumerated powers of the Mayor of New York is like reading a job description for Dumbledore when Dumbledore had a craving for civic government and pinstripe suits.

This mayor is a judge. This mayor has the powers of a finance committee and can create or abolish entire offices and departments, reorganize any agency and create new ones that coordinate criminal justice, public health, environmental and development policies, and appoint the chief of city schools—all “to create an effective and efficient.” functioning and management of the city administration.”

Our Mayor has virtually none of those powers—but in a declared emergency, there’s a little more muscle to flex in Room 303 at City Hall.

New LA Mayor Karen Bass chose to start her first day of work at the city’s emergency response center and do what she promised: declare a state of emergency to help address the homeless crisis.

If this were New York, it could be: fiat mayor, bada boom, bada bing. Here, the city council must give the mayor the green light for 30 days and then renew her emergency powers every 30 days to keep it running.

So on paper their mayor can beat our mayor on sheer authority, but neither is LA’s mayoral power the 98-pound wimp they’re sometimes made out to be.

The emergency declaration gives the mayor the power to quickly get money for those providing services to the homeless, authorize building leases, and speed up the rattling, procrastinating of regulations and permits. It can also end standard procedures for paying for all kinds of services without a tender – and without the OK of the city council.

With power now zero-sum, the council—its 15 members are each powerful chiefs of a particular district—must relinquish some powers for emergency declarations to work. The city math so far has been: divide the citywide solutions to homelessness by 15, and that’s your formula for failing. Well, with these emergency powers, if the mayor’s plans work out, every council member can get their share of the glory.

All of this has been made easier because the LA City Charter has changed.

The wise Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA, was also executive director of the city-appointed charter commission in the late 1990s.

Before these changes in the city’s constitution, he told me, acting quickly in emergencies could be a rather tedious process.

Although the mayor was in charge of the city during his state of emergency, that power was not included in the charter — isolated from the council — until voters dumped it there in 1999.

“Los Angeles seems to be operating on the notion of having a very strong temporary mayor when needed. It’s different from the East Coast towns where I grew up, is that [mayors] are never irresponsible. …

“Here the mayor often seems paralyzed by all this in many ways [city’s] governing bodies, but when it comes to something really big, the system is there to allow for a greater concentration of power for 30 days. It’s a very LA way of boosting the mayor when you need to boost the mayor.

“This is a perfect moment for that – a fresh start with the new mayor in a stubborn problem. I think it will result in options flowing into the mayor’s office – but not forever.”

Sometimes our crises have been enormous — so great that local emergency regulation has been replaced by state and even federal disaster declarations, like the 1992 riots after Rodney King acquitted the LAPD. Governor Pete Wilson mobilized the California National Guard, and President George HW Bush reportedly ordered federal officers to be sent to the city at the request of Mayor Tom Bradley.

Two years later, Sonenshein reminded me, the Northridge earthquake prompted Mayor Richard Riordan to issue a declaration of emergency, which at the time was backed only by administrative code—not by the specific power of a city charter.

I know, I know, “City Law”. Twist eyes. But stay here.

If you lived and voted in LA in 1999, here’s what you probably accomplished: you changed the city charter to create a special mayoral emergency declaration agency, and now there’s a special city department for emergency management.

Mayors haven’t exactly run amok with this new authority. On the one hand, a monthly refresher is still required, on the other hand there is a risk of the emergency line being pulled too hard. As Sonenshein noted, “If everything is an emergency, it’s nothing.”

Floods, fires, yes, of course, all disasters, but there are disasters that you don’t see on the 10 o’clock news.

For example, in 1994, under the old charter, Riordan approved the city council’s motion to declare a state of emergency over AIDS. This allowed organizations distributing clean needles to bypass state law and LAPD enforcement to try to stem the epidemic among IV drug users. It would have been an easier task five years later, under the 1999 charter revisions endorsed by Riordan.

In 2020, Mayor Eric Garcetti invoked the declaration of a state of emergency for the COVID pandemic. With city council approval, this meant that Garcetti could – and did – wield extraordinary power. Safer at Home closed the doors of non-essential businesses such as bars, restaurants, clubs, theaters and gyms and imposed a moratorium on evictions. The restrictions that have remained in place since that ukase in March 2020 will expire in February at the request of Garcetti and with the approval of the Council.

For some delicious history on all of this, Sonenshein put me in touch with Michael Holland, the town’s archivist, who has been digging through his treasury of documents for nuggets like these:

In 1936, a 1933 Major Disaster Emergency Council was drafted into the City Bylaws, stating that it would be made up of heads of various committees and subcommittees along with the Mayor, a Red Cross representative of course, and – believe what you read – should be composed of representatives of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Obviously the last thing the city wanted was disaster, compounded by disastrous PR.

The text reads in part: "Chapter 5. Public safety and security. Article 1 – Disaster Council for Emergencies"

A scan of the 1936 Los Angeles Municipal Code establishing an Emergency Council, which included a Chamber of Commerce representative.

(Michael Holland / Los Angeles City Archives)

In January 1951, in the midst of a Cold War with Russian commis, a hot war in Korea, and the burgeoning of McCarthyism at home, Los Angeles by decree centralized its emergency power under a Civil Defense and Disaster Committee and Corps.

The language was reminiscent of the military, and the threats they alluded to were Cold War fire and earthquakes: “disaster” included “enemy attack or threatened attack by land, sea, or air.”

And for the duration, the mayor took on a new title: commander.

“During the time of the disaster, the mayor has the supreme command of the civil defense and disaster corps. As such, he is empowered to unilaterally command a whole range of items and actions.

The ordinance doesn’t mandate a mayoral command uniform, but you just know that someone somewhere at City Hall must have been waiting to design one.

It’s a strange thing about Angelenos. The title “mayor” makes us think that the job has more authority than it actually has, which can go a long way to explaining citizens’ frustration when problems go unsolved.

Sonnenschein provides the perfect example. For years, until homelessness became the number one issue in polls among LA voters, “the number one issue in the race for mayor is that the mayor should fix the schools.”

If you think that can happen, I’ll sell you a Big Apple Bridge.

Patt Morrison at USC, in Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Explain LA with Patt Morrison

Los Angeles is a complex place. In this weekly feature, Patt Morrison explains how it works, its history and its culture. The precedents for Karen Bass’ homelessness emergency order

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