New Los Angeles County officials sworn in

New L.A. County officials take oath in sweeping leadership turnover, largest in recent memory

A new era in Los Angeles County government formally got underway Monday with the inauguration of two new county supervisors, a new sheriff, a new tax assessor and heightened anticipation about how the historic changes will alter the balance of power.

The officials face a variety of looming issues that include labor union demands, controlling spending, scandals that have consumed the L.A. County jail system, child welfare programs and the county's property assessment agency.

The new supervisors, both liberal, labor-backed political veterans, are joining a five-member panel responsible for managing the nation's largest local government.

Sheila Kuehl, representing the western rim of the county, and Hilda Solis, representing the eastern portion, will quickly confront far-reaching and sensitive personnel and policy decisions. They include picking a chief executive to draft budget recommendations and help negotiate union contracts, and the first director of an office to reform scattered child protection services, which have been roundly criticized for performing poorly.

At the same time, two of the three continuing board members are pushing for a controversial change in how dozens of public service agencies operate — one that would give the elected supervisors more direct, day-to-day influence over top managers.

With new Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Solis and Kuehl also will have to cope with pending federal oversight of the treatment of mentally ill jail inmates.

"There's a lot of work to be done here," said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a labor-supported board member who could play a key role in the new political alignment.

During a series of swearing-in ceremonies Monday at the county Hall of Administration, the leaders and their allies signaled some early priorities and suggested a fresh era of cooperation was possible.

"I feel a strong sense of optimism and promise," Solis, President Obama's former Labor secretary, told an overflowing crowd of her supporters. The "challenges are great, but this is a team ready to take them on and to win."

Solis and Kuehl, who replaced longtime board members Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky, said they hoped to scale back the number of people being locked up in county jails.

Solis warned of an "incarceration-industrial complex that will sink our economy as well as our society if we allow it to." Kuehl said in an interview that she wants to revisit a recent decision by the previous board to spend $2 billion building jail facilities, including a new central jail.

Both also said they would push to fully implement an overhaul of the county's child welfare system recommended by a blue-ribbon commission after the death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who was allegedly killed by his mother and her boyfriend last year. County social workers failed to remove the boy from the home despite multiple reports of suspected abuse.

Kuehl, a former state legislative leader, and Solis also hinted that they would push to boost the minimum pay for county workers and residents of county-controlled unincorporated areas — a major goal for organized labor. Kuehl said both groups of workers should "be able to achieve a dignified living and be able to maintain it."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, in a perhaps telling role, administered the oath of office to Solis and acted as master of ceremonies at Kuehl's event. He predicted city and county cooperation on projects including regional transit and creation of a biotech corridor in Boyle Heights and El Sereno.

"This new class of county supervisors starts with a new sense of hope," Garcetti said. "These are highly experienced officials who bring networks, intelligence and resumes that few arriving at this job have ever had."

Political observers will be watching closely for signs of a different direction for the nonpartisan board, which historically has been dominated by fiscally conservative and moderate members.

Yaroslavsky and Molina, who each served more than 20 years on the board, were forced from office by term limits. Combined with Sheriff Lee Baca's early retirement this year after agency deputies were charged in federal jail brutality and obstruction of justice cases, the leadership turnover was among the most sweeping in modern county history.

The transition creates "a moment of some opportunity" to reexamine priorities, said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor and member of the city's ethics commission.

But she said it doesn't necessarily herald major policy changes. Governing the county "is like steering a tanker," she said. "You can't pull a U-turn."

Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor, predicted those with interests in county government would be vying to develop relationships with the new officials. "You'll see an awful lot of people jockeying for position," he said.

The sheriff and Jeff Prang, the county assessor, promised to push ahead with reforms and mend morale that has been bludgeoned by high-profile scandals in both offices. Baca had been dogged by allegations that he allowed problems to fester in the jails without action and gave friends and supporters favored treatment — allegations he denied.

"Many of you felt you were being asked to choose between what was best for the department and what was best for a few people who were only trying to serve themselves," McDonnell told the audience, which included Baca and many Sheriff's Department officials, after taking the oath of office. "I am telling you that as of today, those days are gone."

He told reporters afterward that hiring and promotions would be based on merit, not a "pay to play" system that rewarded political campaign contributions. He added that there would be no more "working in the gray," a concept allegedly supported by some in the department that means condoning law enforcement practices that fell between legal and illegal.

Prang is taking over for John Noguez, who was on paid leave for the last two years while facing charges that he took bribes in exchange for reducing taxable property valuations.

Prang promised to increase transparency by making more financial data available to the public, as well as to improve the office's efficiency by updating antiquated technology.

"My administration will never allow outside influences" to affect its decisions, he said.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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