To Mumbai, Lessons from Los Angeles

Mumbai has been selected as a "C40 city"—a consortium of the world’s leading cities taking bold action against climate change. But, what does it lack?

Last week, Maharahstra’s Cabinet Minister of Tourism and Environment, Aaditya Thackeray announced that Mumbai has been selected as a “C40 city”—a consortium of the world’s leading cities taking bold action against climate change.

Thackeray also tweeted his belief that “cities can lead climate change initiatives”, but this attribution seems like wishful thinking for Indian cities. Unlike New York City or Los Angeles in the United States, Mumbai is not empowered to lead climate change or any other initiative. Here are just a few lessons Mumbai can learn from Los Angeles (LA) whose mayor, Eric Garcetti, steered the committee that included Mumbai as a C40 member city.

Like Mumbai, the LA city government maintains streets and parks and provides residents with water, electricity, and sanitation services. But unlike Mumbai, the LA city is run by elected and empowered officials subject to stricter regulation and oversight. The LA city government is far more powerful and autonomous than the Mumbai Municipal Corporation and not everything is deferred to the state government. Here’s how:

1. LA is a charter city

In the late 90s, LA residents wanted to make the city government more efficient and responsive. There was also a rising clamour from the elite parts of LA such as Hollywood and the Sonoma Valley to secede from the city of Los Angeles. A charter reform was discussed to address citizen concerns. In 1999, LA residents voted to replace their 1925 charter with a brand new charter that gave more power to the directly-elected mayor and formed local neighbourhood councils. Like LA, the US has 90+ charter cities where its governance is decided by its own charter, rather than an existing law. 

The charter reform didn’t happen overnight. It was first discussed in the 1840s. For much of the 19th century, local government had been hamstrung by a legal theory “that cities were merely creatures of state government and whose view was widely accepted throughout the nation”, according to Raphael J. Sonenshein’s Structure of a City Government. But about 40 years later, the 1879 California Constitution (LA is California’s largest city) allowed large cities to write charters. Californian cities achieved some degree of home rule or autonomy in the late 19th century, whereas till today, India remains far away from city-led federalism.

2. The charter gives more power to elected officials

As a result of this charter, LA voters choose city council members along with other officials like the mayor, city attorney, and a city controller. Unlike the state Chief Minister or the Municipal Commissioner who make major decisions in Mumbai, functions are decentralised to the mayor and the council in LA. For example, the mayor proposes a city budget to the council, appoints department heads, and also the chief of police (also subject to the approval of the police commission and the city council). The 1999 charter restricted the council’s powers to enlarge the mayor’s office but the council still wields considerable say and development rights over their districts.

3. LA has empowered neighbourhood councils 

The 1999 city charter made a provision for neighbourhood councils which are empowered forms of local neighbourhood governments that elect their own officers and can establish their own bylaws. In the run-up to the charter reform, LA debated whether neighbourhood councils should have decision-making powers but eventually decided against it. The councils, however, are informed about city council’s decisions before time through an “early notification system”. This means that the council has to alert neighbourhood councils about upcoming issues that may affect them.

The councils are not as strong as many would have wished. They don’t have power over land-use decisions or city service delivery. But it “did offer a productive way for Los Angeles to engage some minority communities and offer them a path towards fuller membership in the city”, researchers Erwin Chemerinsky and Sam Kleiner write. Mumbai has its own form of local neighbourhood councils in the form of Area Sabhas under the Nagar Raj Bill, or town governance bill, under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), but it has been watered down by the state.

4. LA has a right to recall

In 2003, California governor Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This was perhaps one of the most famous instances of recall, under which voters can remove an official through direct vote. But LA has had the recall provision for a long time. In 1938, voters recalled mayor Frank Shaw to prevent further corruption at the city hall. But what’s noteworthy about LA’s right to recall is that it’s not just extended to elected officials, the section 200 of the charter also allows appointed officials to be accountable to citizens by subjecting them to recall. 

5. LA has provisions for referendum  

The LA charter also has provisions to involve citizen voices across its development processes. The city council can place one of its ordinances before citizens for consideration. The initiative can be contested through a vote and may only be adopted if it is approved by majority. In 2017, LA put an initiative called Measure S on the ballot. If approved, it  would have put a two-year moratorium on all development that strayed from the “city’s rigid, suburban-style zoning codes”. Its opponents claimed that the Measure would increase homelessness and drive rents higher. The Measure was voted out by LA citizens. Over two-thirds of voters were against it. Referenda are known to operationalise democratic decision making. If adopted in Mumbai, for example, provisions for referenda would mean that citizens could vote in favour or against the Coastal Road Project or the Metro project.

6. LA voters appoint a watchdog

Unlike BMC corporators who have routinely blocked audits, LA voters appoint a Chief Controller for the exact purpose of safeguarding their tax money. The 1999 charter reform charged the City Controller’s office with the responsibility to sniff out waste, fraud, inefficiency, and abuse in city departments. The officer conducts “performance audits” of all departments and publicises them to create citizen pressure against misuse.

7. The LA structure is nonpartisan

LA elections are unique. No party designations or insignia appear on local ballots. This means that the overall structure of elections is based on nonpartisanship. The mayoral candidates might belong to a political party but their affiliations don’t matter at the city government level. Yet Los Angeles City council is known to be dominated by Democrats, over Republicans.

8. LA needs to maintain a high credit rating 

LA must develop a balanced budget each year, maintain its high credit rating so that it can borrow money at favourable rates, and deliver the most service possible within the funds that are available, according to a study on LA’s city government structure. The municipal corporation in Mumbai is India’s richest but is not subjected to such watertight rules and regulations. While LA has maintained a high credit rating and proved reliable in delivering services, there is no way to establish similar competence for BMC.

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