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Sport of Supes 

Maybe it makes sense to expand L.A.’s Board of Supervisors

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
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Some people collect little trains; others heap up stamps and coins in tidy folders. Here in Southern California, hobbies tend to be strenuous: kickboxing, sailboarding, surfing.

But Alan Clayton‘s hobby is political redistricting. “It’s like the world‘s biggest puzzle,” he says.

And he wants to redistrict Los Angeles County -- the nation’s most populous. No, he doesn‘t just want to redraw the five districts of the five sitting supervisors to reflect new population realities. That is supposed to happen automatically after this year’s census.

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Clayton -- whose full-time job is with the county Chicano Employees Association -- wants more. He wants the county to be California‘s first to empanel a superboard of nine supervisors -- four more than we have now. The voters have rejected board expansion twice in 20 years.

But there’s a new reason for this reform: It‘s that this year, no one is challenging any of the three incumbents up for election. Hence, the majority of the board members -- Mike Antonovich, Yvonne Burke and Don Knabe -- are unopposed. Which means that our Board of Supervisors has become not just a nondemocratic but an anti-democratic institution.

It’s anti-democratic because when no one runs for office, incumbents become the appointees of indifference. Says Clayton, “This is the best evidence that the considerations of size and money have made the whole [county electoral] system undemocratic.”

According to Clayton, it costs $2 million to run for a board seat. Incumbents keep $3 million war chests. That‘s probably why no incumbent has been ousted in 20 years. “The only kind of person who can win is another Dick Riordan or Al Checchi,” says Clayton, and people that rich usually seek bigger political game. So the supes, generally speaking, are politicians whose greatest shared skill is in raising money from those who most benefit from their tenure. The county’s Marina del Rey tenants, for instance.

But near-doubling the board‘s size would make it more representative, Clayton contends. There’d be two San Fernando Valley districts. There would be a more coherent African-American district; at least one more Latino district; possibly even, in the San Gabriel Valley, an Asian-American district. The game would cost less to get into and be more worth playing.

Board expansion has this time been endorsed by the Times and the Daily News, and there‘s bipartisan support in the Legislature. But the supervisors are dubious. That’s probably why the county bureaucracy recently encumbered the plan with a further proposal for an elected county executive officer. To Clayton, this is a poison pill. Also under consideration are two proposals to give the supervisors the term limits endured by all other state and local officeholders. Clayton wants a maximum of three four-year-terms, as well as a provision that would cap the county‘s administrative budget at its present level, to minimize the additional cost of the expanded board.

But so far, the supervisors have not settled on a specific ballot date on which to put the expansion proposal to the voters. Clayton and his team are backed up by Senator Richard Polanco, who’s prepared a state constitutional amendment that would mandate a nine-member board for any county of over 5 million population. (It‘s been contended that Polanco, who is soon to be termed out of the Legislature, might run for a seat on the new board: Clayton maintains that the planned district boundaries would force Polanco to compete with powerful incumbent Gloria Molina.) So if this county refuses to put its own proposal on its own ballot, the matter may soon be out of its hands. Clayton estimates the Legislature could act next month if the supervisors don’t move first.

So far, however, there is little sign they will.

The Late Unpleasantness

The Tyrant‘s heel is on thy brow, Maryland, my Maryland.

--Old song

The scent of fresh magnolias, not unmixed with the stink of vintage molasses, rose from the Los Angeles City Council chamber last week. Even on City Hall’s 12th floor, you couldn‘t dodge the reek.

“Face it, we stood up for what we believed in, and we lost,” orated Senator Beauregard Claghorn, D-Miss. No, wait: It says here that those remarks were actually uttered by Councilman Hal Bernson of Granada Hills, who doesn’t even own a gray Stetson hat, so far as I know. But he seemed more in a mood to solemnize the birthday of Robert E. Lee than that of Martin Luther King Jr.

Maybe it was the concurrent South Carolina state-flag crisis that was getting to me. Yet, even minus the bourbon-washed accent, Mr. Bernson did a perfectly credible imitation of a vintage Dixiecrat lamenting the anniversary of Lee‘s Surrender at Appomattox. Several colleagues chimed in with their own sympathies and mourned those lost days of splendor and the destruction of their Hallowed Way of Life. All that was missing, really, was sobbing background music, courtesy of the Charleston Symphony: the theme from Gone With the Wind. And maybe a choral rendition of some poll-tax ordinance.

Why was our City Council majority sounding like the last session of the Confederate Congress? Because, to hear them talk, the passage of the new city charter last year was a disaster akin to Lee’s surrender to Grant. From which civilization may never recover.

Oh yes, there was an issue on the floor, wasn‘t there? It was whether the mayor could appoint an acting administrator to be permanent head of the Community Redevelopment Agency. This appointment power makes a difference -- it determines who controls inner-city development. Many feel the mayor would prefer to let the CRA vaporize and leave such matters to his private-sector friends. Some imagine that making current CRA chief Jerry Scharlin (whom Mayor Dick Riordan deputized when the original CRA head John Molloy left last year) permanent would let this happen.

Now, in the normal order of things, Riordan could make no such appointment without council sanction. In fact, as Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton put it, this is the way such matters are supposed to work under both the old and new charters. The council chose, perhaps mindful of the burning of Tara and whatnot, to pretend otherwise. Appointing CRA heads was just another of those lost, past glories: After much bereavement and little practical debate, the council postponed the matter. Smart money says Scharlin stays on board.

The council’s week of passivity began passive-aggressively, when the council‘s ad hoc charter committee met Monday regarding the transfer of several significant new charter elements into city law. The elements included important stuff, such as who gets to represent the city in various circumstances: the council or the mayor? Now, when you think about it, you mightn’t expect much charter process from a five-member committee that contained two of the most outre charter opponents from last year‘s election.

Chair Laura Chick put on a brave face just before the meeting, telling KCRW’s Warren Olney that her colleagues surely would put aside former differences to pull together. Then she had to deal with the fact that Senators -- I mean Councilpeople -- Nate Holden and Jackie Goldberg were pulling, if at all, in the opposite direction. Neither Chick nor Councilman Mike Feuer made headway, as Goldberg and Holden seemed to rediscover the filibuster. And hence all matters were, of course, postponed again.

Will the cornpone conspiracy really stall the charter? Under law, the council must implement the voter-passed charter by approving the necessary regulations and procedures. So I believe that it can delay matters, if only until next year‘s council election, when its worst mossbacks -- for the most part -- automatically pass from the scene. Will the charter obstructionists get comeuppance in subsequent political life? I do hope so. Goldberg faces a tough competitor in her March Assembly race who’s likely to remind the voters of her reactionary role here.

But at the moment, when it actually can‘t obstruct the process, the council majority seems determined to do nothing on charter-related business. Last week, its definition of such matters included anything affected by the charter change. Such as the seating of department heads.

If that’s the way they want to be, why don‘t the molasses majority simply take a few months off? I understand that coastal Carolina is lovely this time of year.

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