LA Explained: With A New Mayor In Town, What Powers Does Bass Actually Have?
Los Angeles’s new mayor, Karen Bass, is now in charge. Her newfound powers as outlined in the city charter make her more than a figurehead — but not an absolute rule-maker either.
Having some authority, however, is a big deal. We’re in a time where there’s no consensus about how to make L.A. better. Where should we spend the most money? How should it be spent? Who gets help first? As Bass takes office, her administration’s priorities will give us answers to those questions over the next four years.
Let’s talk about what she can and can’t do in her new job.
What Can L.A.’s Mayor Do?
If the City Council is L.A.’s legislature, then the mayor is the executive branch. They’re also like CEOs (the city charter even calls them that), except they’re elected by the people and are accountable to them. Mayors are allowed to serve only two terms that are four years long.
If the job were on a resume, the mayor would be responsible for knowing:
- how to use their position to get legislation enacted and implemented
- how to set balanced budgets
- who to pick as leaders for L.A.’s many city departments and commissions
Essentially, they’re one big manager.
Under the charter, the mayor oversees all city departments, agencies and appointed offices. They can pick new department heads and commissioners as long as the City Council approves them. Mayors can also remove those leaders when they see fit, or move people into different roles. The goal here is for these leaders to help the mayor achieve their agenda, such as reducing homelessness or creating more aid programs.
City money is also in a mayor’s purview. They’re responsible for creating an annual budget, which the Council can amend or approve. This sets spending priorities for areas like public safety and infrastructure. Mayors can also use this time to scope out money for pilot programs like we saw in L.A.’s $24 million basic income pilot program.
In terms of legislative powers, they’re supposed to be less involved. “The mayor is implementer-in-chief of policy,” said Frank Zerunyan, a professor at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and mayor of Rolling Hills Estates. “But the policy power in L.A. … rests with the City Council.”
Mayors can advocate for legislation, but that’s where the ball is supposed to stop. They can veto legislation, but just like in Congress, the Council can override that with a two-thirds majority vote. (With L.A.’s council size, that’s 10 out of 15 members.)
The mayor is implementer-in-chief of policy.
Executive directives — much like the president’s executive orders — can blur the boundaries between the mayor and law creation.
One of the mayor’s powers that we’ve seen recently is declaring a state of emergency. That gives them the authority to move faster to protect the health and safety of Angelenos. Mayor Eric Garcetti enacted the city’s COVID-19 restrictions, but not all emergencies call for such drastic steps.
How Do Mayoral Powers Change During Emergencies?
While government authority is the most visible during a state of emergency, declaring those isn’t supposed to be habitual.
Both the mayor’s office and City Council can declare local emergencies. Bass is expected to declare one on homelessness during her first day.
(In 2015, the City Council also proclaimed an emergency on homelessness, proposing millions in more funding.)
With emergency powers, mayors can issue and enforce rules, regulations, orders and directives (a scope they don’t typically have) to address the problem. These actions help get funding, obtain supplies, and can get initiatives off the ground by directing people to start working on them. It also publicly spotlights the problems.
Under the charter, any event that has magnitude or “is likely to become beyond the control of the normal services, personnel, equipment and facilities” is a local emergency. Think of an earthquake, pandemic or wildfire. Officials can cut through red tape to respond faster to emergencies, according to Zerunyan, but he contends the use of such power shouldn’t become commonplace.
If you asked me what the emergency powers give to a mayor, basically [it] makes the mayor an authoritarian.
“Our republic is set up to govern slowly, but judiciously, and to respect people’s rights,” Zerunyan said. “If you asked me what the emergency powers give to a mayor, basically [it] makes the mayor an authoritarian. That’s what it does — and I mean it in a nice way.”
Those expanded powers are supposed to address a temporary issue. For example, the COVID-19 eviction ban would have taken much longer — if it were ever enacted — without emergency powers, leaving likely millions at risk of homelessness.
Mayors can’t declare emergencies unilaterally — they must be approved by the City Council within seven days and are regularly reviewed thereafter. (You can see each ratification for Garcetti’s local emergency here.)
Who Can The Mayor Hire And Fire?
One of the mayor’s key regular powers is appointing and removing leaders of city agencies, and you’ll want to pay attention to who’s in charge.
For example, if you’re interested in rent control then keep an eye on who’s appointed to the Rent Adjustment Commission. They’re responsible for adopting rules to carry out that mandate, like regulating rents and evictions in certain properties.
There are dozens of roles the mayor can put people into, and some can last for years after that mayor is gone (like our city librarian who was appointed in 2012). Other appointed roles include:
- The head of the L.A. Police Department (filled by Chief Michel Moore)
- The head of the L.A. Fire Department (filled by Chief Kristin Crowley)
The exact places where the mayor has appointing power can vary depending on different provisions in the charter — but the mayor can pick most leaders in departments and commissions in the city’s directory.
One big caveat — unlike other big city mayors, our top leader doesn’t have authority over the public school system or to pick who runs it. That power lies with the LAUSD Board of Education.
Who’s in charge matters. They’ll control how that office or commission is steered. If you know who’s who, and how they got there, that will put you in the sweet spot to effectively raise concerns to the right people — and ideally, get action.