For a better L.A., a less-controlling Board of Supervisors

L.A.'s supervisors won't loosen their grip on power yet can't wield it effectively and responsibly

On Monday, community activists and organizers unveiled a proposal for oversight of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, and its centerpiece is a citizen review board or commission with enough independence and single-minded focus to hold the sheriff to account for his performance.

And on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is due to consider some recommendations to improve the county's child welfare system. Among them is a proposal (although it may end up being put off for a later meeting) to vest a single entity or person — a "czar" of sorts — with power to break departmental barriers and bureaucratic layers to marshal resources for the benefit of children living at risk of parental abuse or neglect.

At one end of county government, the problem is too much power in the hands of a single individual — the sheriff — with too little oversight, while at the other, in child welfare, the problem is the opposite — no single person with power to cut through bureaucratic layers. But both challenges are part of a continuum of dysfunction caused by elected officials unwilling to loosen their grip on power yet incapable of wielding it effectively and responsibly.

The proposal by the Coalition to End Violence in Los Angeles Jails would go a long way toward providing consistent oversight of the Sheriff's Department, which for decades has been unable to deal effectively with excessive force and a culture of secrecy and defiance. It calls for a panel with the power to hire, fire and oversee a truly independent inspector general, in contrast to the one who currently reports to the Board of Supervisors — and who is subject to the board's limited attention span, political orientation and focus on legal liability rather than inmate rights. The board should consider the proposal carefully instead of jealously guarding its direct but so far ineffective oversight.

It likewise should offer more than the derision that some members delivered this month after receiving the final report from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. Supervisors scoffed that few of the recommendations were new, but that's really the point: The board has continually heard and rejected prescriptions urged by several decades of reformers. Too often the board is the problem rather than the problem-solver.

In the cases of both sheriff oversight and child welfare, as in many others besides, the supervisors must recognize that many of their constituents have lost faith in their ability to solve the county's problems. They should take these reform proposals seriously and give them time to be considered by the communities they were elected to serve.

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