When he was a Los Angeles County supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky had a quip about county government that his successor, Sheila Kuehl, likes to quote: A county of 10 million people run by a five-member Board of Supervisors is absurd. Unless you're one of the five.
The point is that one supervisor with jurisdiction over 2 million people and a fifth of a $27-billion budget has a lot of power. Who, once he or she gets that kind of clout, would willingly give any of it up?
California's default form of county government was designed in the middle of the 19th century and may well have been workable, or at least passable, when Los Angeles County was populated mostly by cows, a handful of vaqueros and some transients whose luck ran out in the gold fields up north. It may suffice even today in counties such as Siskiyou, with 45,000 or so residents.
In Los Angeles County though, Yaroslavsky was right: A five-member Board of Supervisors — with no separation between executive and legislative functions, few checks and balances and a population bigger than most states — is absurd.
It is a form of government that would have given Montesquieu, Madison and all the other democratic theorists and constitutional framers fits. It diminishes the voices and voting power of individual residents. It provides for inadequate oversight of public spending and public services. It confounds people who just want to know — who's in charge here?
It's certainly true that a governing body with fewer people stands a better chance of getting things done than a bigger one. But it also stands a better chance, if no one has the power to say “no,” of making costly mistakes.
Democratic state Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia has introduced a bill to ask California voters to expand boards of supervisors in counties of 2 million or more people to at least seven supervisors. (It would currently apply to L.A., San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.) L.A. County's supervisors will take an advisory position on the bill Tuesday and are likely to turn thumbs down. More on that in a bit.
First, though, it's important to remember that a majority of the previous board reluctantly agreed with Yaroslavsky in 2007 that regardless of the number of supervisors, Los Angeles County needed a stronger executive. Not a fully empowered elected official, like an independently elected mayor, but merely an individual like a city manager who was responsible for running the county on a day-to-day basis, leaving the Board of Supervisors to focus on policy and oversight. On paper, it was a more rational system, comparable to the governance model in San Diego and other large counties, not to mention many small and medium-sized counties as well.
It was an interim step, to be followed by a countywide vote ratifying the new system and making it a permanent part of the government's structure. William T Fujioka, a former county hospital official who also had been the chief administrator of the city of L.A., got the job.
It worked imperfectly. It may be that the supervisors were too unwilling to surrender power. It may be that they were unable to change their method of operating, moving from micromanagement or public humiliation of department directors — something at which Supervisor Gloria Molina specialized — to bigger-picture policymaking and oversight. It may be that Fujioka was simply the wrong fit for the job. For whatever reason, the supervisors never moved past the interim phase toward more rational and responsible government.
The new board, instead of finally completing that step forward, is instead taking a big step in the other direction. In February, with Fujioka, Yaroslavsky and Molina gone, the supervisors moved to repeal the 2007 ordinance and called for recommendations that would delete “unnecessary layers of management.”
The recommendations have not yet come up for a vote, but drafts circulating around the Hall of Administration lay out a return to the old ways, with a five-headed, sometimes-bickering executive attempting to direct the affairs of some 40 departments.
It's cause for concern. To its credit, the new board has sought creative workarounds that get departments to work together more seamlessly. But it still needs someone with clout, confidence and policy experience, especially at budget time, to say “no.” It needs someone to tell the big five when they are spending too much or thinking too little. But elected officials with the power that county supervisors have aren't likely to share that power with an executive or with anyone else absent a crisis — or unless voters force them to.
So should voters force them to? That brings us back to the Mendoza measure to expand the board to at least seven. Proponents assert that such a reconfigured board would be far more representative, and it might; but it would still leave Los Angeles County with districts of 1.4 million people and, this time, a seven-headed body with few checks or balances. Without a strong executive, that sounds more like a way of enlarging the dysfunction than correcting it.
Mendoza says he also supports an independently elected executive, and that his measure might be seen as just the first of several steps toward better county government. Perhaps. Or expansion without an independent executive may turn out just like the term limits that finally kicked in last year: Good for shuffling the deck, not so good for improving the game.