Los Angeles County is a difficult place to run, with 10 million residents, a $26-billion budget and challenges that would stagger many medium-sized states. To administer it, voters here elect five county supervisors — the same as in California's next most populous counties (San Diego and Orange, each with less than a third of L.A. County's residents), and in fact the same as in most of the others, such as Modoc (population 9,147), Sierra (3,047) and Alpine (1,159).
Needless to say, each L.A. County supervisor has bigger responsibilities and bigger headaches than their counterparts in a place like Modoc. Not that supervisors in the far northeastern corner of the state lack their share of challenges, but the scope and scale are different. Each supervisor there stands a good chance of knowing their constituents by name. They can work through problems without losing track of, for example, what's going on in their jail or how children in foster care are getting along. It may make sense for Modoc County supervisors to directly oversee the chief probation officer or the health services director.
But in Los Angeles, county leaders juggle so many departments and commissions that they can't possibly keep track of it all without someone in charge. It would be like a corporate board of directors trying to run a multibillion-dollar company without a chief executive officer, or a school board not bothering to hire a superintendent.
Yet that's how Los Angeles County operated until 2007, leaving matters to relatively unempowered chief administrators, who drew up budgets and did their best to make recommendations and keep things running, but without authority to instruct the many county department chiefs to do anything. Some made it work. Many didn't. Los Angeles County got by, but only amid crises and chaos exacerbated by a government in which department chiefs had five bosses and five often conflicting sets of directives.
What the county needs is probably what a city or a state needs — an elected executive, like a mayor or governor, responsible directly to the people and checked and balanced by a Board of Supervisors able to focus directly on lawmaking and oversight.
But we've been down that road in Los Angeles County. Voters defeated a 1992 ballot measure to create an elected county executive. That's a shame, but for now there appears to be little appetite to try again.
The Board of Supervisors went on trying to run what is virtually a state as if it were a county the size of Modoc, and came to realize it was impossible. After failing to replace their last chief administrator, the supervisors — with much trepidation over losing their direct power to issue orders to their department chiefs — finally created the post of chief executive officer. They included a clause in the authorizing ordinance to prevent themselves from interfering with department operations. They hired William T Fujioka to fill the job.
But they lacked the courage of their shaky convictions, and soon stripped Fujioka of power over two key departments, Probation and Children and Family Services. Chaos at DCFS immediately took a turn for the worse. Probation chiefs quickly came and went. Meanwhile, the supervisors took a fairly loose approach to the noninterference clause or ignored it altogether.
Fujioka has announced his retirement later this year, and his departure will come at a crucial time, as two new supervisors, a new sheriff and a new assessor take office. It's an opportunity for constructive change.
Yet the supervisors are mulling a move in the wrong direction. They're considering scrapping the CEO position and going back to the chief administrator post, which allowed them to directly manage — often to micromanage — departments.
It's a bad idea. Los Angeles County should instead put its chief executive more firmly in control of day-to-day operations, even if he or she is an appointed rather than elected official. Other large counties, such as San Diego, run well with appointed chief executives, much like the city managers who serve a majority of California cities. Supervisors hold the CEO accountable for results; they set policy, pass laws and provide oversight, but they don't interfere with department chiefs or midlevel workers.
The San Diego CEO wields greater authority than Fujioka was granted. That county, and not Modoc, is a better model for Los Angeles.
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