October 24, 2022

How to LA: What Does The Mayor of LA Even Do?

Quick pop quiz: who has the power to appoint a police chief for the city of Los Angeles, but does not have the power to choose who sits on the school board?

Okay, do you give up? It’s the L.A. mayor. The current man in charge, Mayor Eric Garcetti, is currently finishing his last term, putting the seat up for grabs. Congresswoman Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso are currently in the running to take it. 

It’s a quite powerful position to be in, though not as power-wielding as other major cities like New York and Chicago.

L.A. mayors can make city budgets, appoint commissioners and kick out city officials. They can also declare local emergencies or disasters, but they cannot do it unilaterally. Members of the L.A. City Council would have to agree to it. The L.A. mayor – whoever it may be – needs buy-in from the council and others to enact most policies. 

In a recent episode of the How to LA podcast, host Brian De Los Santos breaks down the power of the mayor to effect change in three key areas: environmental policy, homelessness, and police reform.

(The content below is from laist)

In the world of metropolitan mayors, there are so-called “weak” mayors and “strong” mayors. Those terms typically describe where they fall on a spectrum of strength, ranging from figurehead to overlord.

L.A.’s mayor doesn’t have the far-reaching powers of the two other biggest cities in the U.S. — and that’s by design. When the city charter was drawn up nearly 100 years ago, it was intentionally written to keep the mayor from setting up the type of political machines New York and Chicago are known for.

Still, serving as L.A.'s mayor is far from ceremonial. Instead, think of the mayor as a CEO: they can appoint commissioners and boot city officials.

They also handle the money; mayors must propose a budget (which must be approved by the City Council) and report to the council every year on how that money is spent.

The 15-member council is basically L.A.'s legislature. The mayor has veto power over new laws and line items in the budget, although the council can override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds vote.

The mayor does not have authority over the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Day-to-day power belongs to the LAUSD Board of Education, which is elected by voters. This is one major way in which the job differs from that of New York’s mayor, who has had control over that city's public school system since 2002, and Chicago’s mayor who, for better or worse, has wielded complete power since 1995. L.A. is the largest city in the country in which the mayor has no direct control over the education system.

Some other things the mayor does have control over:

  • Who leads the L.A. Police Department — The mayor appoints the police chief (but not the L.A. Sheriff, who is elected).
  • Who leads the L.A. Fire Department — The mayor appoints the fire chief.
  • Declaring a local emergency or disaster — Once such a declaration is made, the mayor automatically becomes the Director of the Emergency Operations Organization, giving it the authority to requisition supplies and city personnel and to issue rules.

As the head of the second-largest city in the country, L.A.’s mayor has the ability to lead on social issues at the heart of national conversations. Their power over the budget allows them to carve out funding to pilot new programs. Case-in-point: the city’s universal basic income program. In 2021, Los Angeles became the largest city to pilot such a program after Mayor Eric Garcetti carved out $24 million to give some low-income families a $1,000 monthly stipend.

Like U.S. presidents, L.A. mayors serve a four-year term and are limited to two terms. Garcetti, first elected in 2013, is termed out and is awaiting confirmation of his appointment as U.S. ambassador to India.

There were 12 mayoral candidates on the June 7 ballot. After the vote, Karen Bass and Rick Caruso earned the top two spots to face off on the November ballot.

You will only see the L.A. mayor on your ballot if you live in the city of Los Angeles. If you have a different city in your home address, such as West Hollywood or Long Beach, you have your own city government. If you live in unincorporated Los Angeles County, your home address will say Los Angeles, but you are only governed by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Still not sure? Punch your address into Voter's Edge to find out what will be on your ballot.

You might recognize the mayor's work from…

The mayor’s power is particularly evident during a state of emergency. The pandemic offers several examples of Garcetti wielding power given to him by the Municipal Code to implement policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

It’s hard to remember pre-pandemic times, but for one example, let’s look back on Garcetti’s push to increase the minimum wage above what the state requires:
In 2015, he signed a measure to begin a phased increase of the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 for businesses with more than 25 employees. At the time, California’s minimum wage was $9 an hour. The proposal, backed by activists, got a 13-1 favorable vote from the City Council. Garcetti then signed it into law. Now the $ 15-an-hour rate is set to jump to just over $16 on July 1.

What’s on the agenda for the next term?

L.A.’s next mayor will inherit a city facing historical challenges. Among them:

Turmoil at City Hall: Just weeks before the Nov. 8 election a leaked tape has roiled L.A. politics, with the fate of powerful City Council members now in question. Nury Martinez stepped down as the council president the day after the tape leaked. In it, she uses racist and derogatory language while talking to fellow councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. They were recorded without their knowledge in October 2021 talking about frustrations with redistricting efforts in the city. Both Bass and Caruso have called for the people involved to resign.

A homelessness crisis: We don't yet have the results of the 2022 homeless count, and we missed the 2021 count because of the pandemic. The 2020 count found at least 41,290 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Caruso and Bass both have vowed, immediately on taking office, to declare a state of emergency regarding homelessness, which would give them broad powers to take action.

Rising crime rates: There were 397 homicides in Los Angeles in 2021 — a 50% increase from 2019. As of early October, homicides have been flat year-over-year at 304. Robberies involving firearms were up 57% from 2020 and 60% from 2019 (and they're up again this year, about 17% so far.) However, keep in mind that the crime rate remains significantly lower than the historic highs of the 1990s.

L.A. Police Department funding: Mayor Garcetti recently called for an 8.5% increase in the department’s budget, but the “defund the police” movement and other critics question whether an increase is justified amid so many other pressing issues.

The list goes on: The climate emergency, Vision Zero (the so-far failing effort to end all traffic deaths), and the affordable housing crisis are also top of mind for many Angelenos.

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