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Mayor of Mayors? 

The newest county-government reform could benefit a political old-timer

Wednesday, Jul 12 2000

One thing that’s never been really popular in pop-prone Southern California is popular upheaval. At least not in local government. Remember city-charter reform? (You ought to, because it‘s just kicked in.) It finally happened -- after generations of stalling -- but not because people surged through the streets demanding it.

It happened because the increasingly needed reform’s traditional, institutional opponents had either weakened over the years (particularly the once-mighty Department of Water and Power and, dare one say it, the City Council) or changed (e.g., the once-omnivorous Downtown Establishment). And because brainy and loquacious urban academics like Xandra Kayden and Rafe Sonenshein helped develop and push the idea. Which they could not have done had the idea not, suddenly, become so pushable that even Mayor Dick Riordan saw the light, along with many other city officials.

Now there‘s a new impetus in Los Angeles County’s government toward expansion of the Board of Supervisors. This idea was rejected in the early ‘90s. But this time the voters could decide that the current five-member board doesn’t adequately represent the county‘s population. Additionally, a proposed reform effort would create an elected county executive.

Many county establishmentarians aren’t nuts about the board-expansion idea. ”There‘s utterly no popular demand for this,“ one eighth-floor wonk said. Other skeptics claim that the whole notion of boosting the number of county supervisors from five to nine results from state Senator Richard Polanco’s lust for continued power after he‘s termed out of Sacramento in 2002. This desire, it is claimed, is so carnal that he’s legislated board expansion simply to give himself a choice of new offices to hold before he grazes the pastures of retirement.

Media cynics are also dubious. The Daily News and the Long Beach Press Telegram (which, come to think of it, share ownership) have both editorially termed board expansion a specious nonreform, aimed at creating new power bases without improving governance. But now the long-resistant county Board of Supervisors itself has its own proposal for -- almost -- exactly the same plan. That‘s because Polanco’s legislation looks like a winner in Sacramento.

And in the same spirit in which the Los Angeles City Council seven years ago created its own, lenient term-restriction laws when harsher limits were being demanded elsewhere, the board would rather overhaul itself than be revamped by a bunch of rustic lawmaking yutzes.

Just how would the state Legislature get to tell L.A. County to elect nine instead of five supervisors? And why? How is easy -- the Polanco bill says that any county in California over 5 million in population must have a nine-member board. Maybe by 2030 this law would also apply to Orange and San Diego counties. But for now, we know who‘s solely in the cross hairs. Why is a little tougher -- but even if editorialists don’t get it, many ethnically based local organizations see reasons to shrink the population of a supervisorial district from over 2 million to about 1.1 million. They‘ve gone on the record to support the Polanco bill.

Just ask Alan Clayton, who, from his unlikely job at the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association, has finally carried the board-expansion ball to the foe’s 5-yard line. Clayton‘s charts and figures suggest that nine members are a better deal for the minorities who make up the county’s majority. There‘d be two (instead of the current one) sure Latino seats plus a possible third -- giving that population segment, which now stands at 43.9 percent of the county total, a chance for 33 percent countywide representation. And in the east, there’s a proposed new district that could represent an Asian-American population that now stands at 13 percent. Plus a ”safe“ South-Central seat for the city‘s ebbing African-American community. Clayton has suggested that the redistricting be ”revenue neutral,“ meaning that the new, large board would not hire more people for the new seats, but simply split the current supervisorial staff nine ways instead of five. So far the county board hasn’t gone for that.

The nine-seat redistricting Clayton proposes also better addresses the county‘s vast and disparate geography: You’d have one seat in the north valley and one containing the west valley and the Antelope Valley. Alert to the usual critique, Clayton is quick to point out that the district in which Polanco lives would continue to be held by the senator‘s sometime foe, the so-far-invincible incumbent, Gloria Molina. Were Polanco to move, he’d be starting fresh, presumably against a district resident. (It‘s noteworthy, by the way, that term limits have disappeared from both Sacramento’s and the board‘s redistricting proposals; an initiative petition to limit supes to two terms is now circulating. Without its passage, however, county supervisors will continue to be the only elected governing officials in California not to have term limits.)

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