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.)
But wait: Now there’s a fifth new county office to be created — the elected county executive, otherwise known as ”county mayor.“ This proposal (a version of which failed last time around) was added to the board-expansion proposal last week. Along with the board expansion, which now goes before the voters in November, the executive proposal would create a county superexecutive, elected at large among all 10 million county residents. But the voters may not see this measure for a while.
Think about that county executive for a moment. And think about what we do not, as a rule, think about, which is the subject of countywide elections.
Right now, only the assessor, sheriff and district attorney are elected countywide. Not too many people notice. The D.A.‘s work has little visibility unless it’s widely seen to be bad — as Gil Garcetti is now discovering. And, via a sleight of incumbency that somehow bypassed the elective process, the Sheriff‘s Department managed its own succession for nearly 84 years — a record that makes Mexico’s late, great PRI look like the Peace and Freedom Party.
But, if the voters ever approve the county-mayor initiative, we‘d better start thinking about countywide elections pretty hard. Of course, county government isn’t nearly what it used to be back before most of the population lived in incorporated cities and Proposition 13 felled the local-government money tree. The county‘s major remaining responsibilities have long been those no one else wanted: land taxation, the law courts and legal recording; low-income health care; relief and welfare; flood control and some sewerage construction and development control. Then there’s criminal prosecution and corrections, plus law enforcement and fire protection for roughly half the county‘s population.–a
Even allowing that county power is diminished, however, just imagine the prominence — locally, statewide and nationally — of anyone who could claim, with some truth, to be the elected leader of 10 million people. That’s more people than the mayor of New York and the governors of most states represent.
County mayor would instantly be the second biggest elected office in this state, and the limits of its power would be less visible the farther you got from the Hall of Administration. By playing the cards of incumbency right, the mayor of Los Angeles County could become a bigger national figure than Rudy Giuliani. ”He could be elected vice president,“ Clayton says.
This is probably why, after authorizing the placing of the nine-member board-expansion proposal on the fall ballot, the board majority balked before doing the same with the county-executive measure. There were, in the opinion of Supervisor Yvonne Burke, too many questions of how much power such an executive might have. You got the idea that she was voicing a majority concern that the county mayor could perhaps have more power than any of the supervisors. Or, perhaps, all of them together.
The county‘s denizen Polanco hunters, naturally, have already accused the lame-duck Eastside senator of wanting this job. But the current proposal actually arose with quite a different name on it: that of someone who’s long shown a genuine interest in being some kind of mayor without ever quite getting his oar in the water: none other than our friend 3rd District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
The county-mayorboard-expansion package, had it all been voted through this week, would have been a perfect dual opportunity for Zev to get a lot of favorable attention. He could have campaigned for it in the name of reforming county government until November 7. Then, if the measure passed, he could run for the new office of county mayor. If the measure failed at the polls, there would still be time for Zev to enroll in the city mayor‘s race.
But that didn’t happen, partly, I think, because other board members sensed that this whole executive deal would do too much for Zev and nothing for the other board members. What‘s left — assuming the board doesn’t vote to reconsider the expansion measure — is a half-dumb, half-smart reform plan. The board will pick its short-term, narrow-focus charter-reform commission to consider what kind of county executive the board wants or needs after the election, contingent on the board being expanded. But this reform panel will not return its findings until a week after the election that was originally planned to pick that executive. Meanwhile, the nine-member board-expansion proposal will have just gone to the voters. Who may think twice about nearly doubling the board if there isn‘t any one person in overall charge of the large, new government. ”Things would take five times as long to do,“ complained Yaroslavsky, seeing the mayoral objectives fading into the mists and imagining an 80 percent increase in the same sort of endless debate the board inflicted on its audience this week.
But if Alan Clayton is right, the key factors pushing board expansion have little to do with whether there is a county exec. And it’s probably going to be on the basis of these factors — which include wider and fairer representation — that the voters will decide which way to go on the nine-member board. My guess is that if they reject it, the entire county-executive proposal will be discreetly scrapped.