They represent more people than members of Congress and even many senators. The only California politicians with larger constituencies are those with statewide responsibilities, such as Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Yet many voters would be hard-pressed to name all five L.A. County supervisors, whose districts each include 2 million people. If this 10 million–population county were a state, it would be the eighth largest in the union. So imagine a state legislature with only five members.
A relatively modest proposal in the capital looks to address this underrepresentation by seeking a statewide vote on expanding the board from five to seven members. The legislation, by state Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia, also would ask voters to create an elected chief executive. It would need two-thirds approval by the Legislature to reach the polls next year.
Similar expansion proposals, inspired by the same issue of Los Angeles County's massive size, have been sought unsuccessfully multiple times over the decades. Supervisor Hilda Solis said that the board itself has placed eight expansion measures on the local ballot in years past, only to see them all fail.
The argument for the latest effort also cites lack of diversity on the board. Only two Latinos are serving on the five-member boards of California's five largest counties, even though Latinos now compose the state's largest racial or ethnic group. The L.A. County board has for decades had only one Latino member, despite the county's nearly half-Latino population. But the board has changed significantly in recent years as a result of redistricting and term limits. Today it includes four women.
"As the only Latina on the board, I believe that fair representation is critical to ensure the highest-quality service and to fully understand the needs of our diverse cities and unincorporated areas," Solis said via email. "The call for equal representation for our communities is more urgent than ever before."
Foes often cite the cost of increasing the size of government. Mendoza's proposal includes cost controls that would cap officials' expenditures. And the elected chief executive would simply replace one that's appointed today. Jaime Regalado, former executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, called the proposal "a democratic move."
"The time is right to try something new," he says. "This is one of the few bodies in the United States that has this much power amassed in its hands."
Mendoza noted that the five-member L.A. County board was established way back in 1852, when the population was about 2,500. He said in a statement that the proposal is about "accountability and transparency."
"It has been more than 150 years since the county system of government was introduced. California, especially Southern California, has changed so dramatically, and it is imperative to adjust how a board of supervisors is structured for large, urban counties," he said.
The board is responsible for the nation's largest sheriff's department, as well as unincorporated communities, local probation officers, child protective services and public housing functions, not to mention its sizable role in regional transportation spending. Yet it keeps a relatively low profile.
There is no mayor of Los Angeles County. Developments in, say, regional affordable housing policy don't generate the headlines that La La Land Day at City Hall do. The low-key nature of the board also keeps prying eyes off the backs of supervisors, Regalado of Cal State L.A. argued. "In L.A. County it can be tough to locate the tenants of power," he said.
Mendoza's expansion would, at least, increase the target audience for citizens with complaints, and it could provide two new, high-profile jobs for California politicians — Mayor Eric Garcetti, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon — who have yet to identify their next gigs.
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Despite its modest profile, the board is a well-worn destination for experienced pols, including Solis, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Obama. "It's good for the Kevin De Leóns of the world, who have no place to land," Regalado said. "If they expand the board, it would give people like that a chance."
The expansion proposal, SCA 12, would head to the June 2018 ballot for your approval if it passes in the Legislature. If California voters say yes, the board would expand to seven members after the 2022 election.
Representatives for supervisors Janice Hahn and Sheila Kuehl said they had not taken a position on the legislation yet. A spokesman for Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she was opposed. Solis said county government "opposes any legislative proposal that would modify the current size of the board of supervisors." A representative for Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas did not respond to our request for comment.
"If this bill moves forward as a measure on the statewide ballot, the decision lies ultimately with the voters of the entire state, as they will determine how the county of Los Angeles, and only the county of Los Angeles, is structured and governed," Solis said.