Of the eight candidates to succeed Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in the 3rd District, two stand out. John Duran, a criminal defense lawyer and a member of the West Hollywood City Council, offers nuts-and-bolts know-how and a firm grasp of local government's possibilities and limitations. Sheila Kuehl, an attorney, academic and 14-year member of the Legislature, brings an encyclopedic knowledge of county operations and a record of fighting for the underserved.
Either would probably perform well in this exceedingly difficult job, serving constituents in a district that stretches from Pacoima to Pacific Palisades and from the beach at County Line to the traffic on the Golden State. And both show some potential to shake up a moribund county government culture that too often shuns the public and fails people living on the margins.
The edge goes to Duran for a fresh perspective badly needed in county government. He combines a progressive bent on social issues with a pragmatic outlook. His self-description as slightly right of center appears to be more political marketing than anything else. But he does demonstrate a willingness to try innovative methods to deliver services by working with the private sector, and his tenure in West Hollywood has been marked by a spirited independence that elevates results over fealty to political supporters or ideologies.
As a part-time council member holding down an outside job, Duran also brings an approach to governance that is standard on many California county boards of supervisors but a bit foreign in Los Angeles: He focuses on policymaking and oversight and allows department managers enough leeway to do their work. L.A. County government would require him to be more hands-on, but it could also benefit from a touch of his management style.
It could benefit, as well, from the impatience Duran has shown in making sure West Hollywood is on the cutting edge of information technology. The county has made some progress in updating its 1970s paper-based filing systems, but it has a long way to go.
The county also needs the continuing emphasis on fiscal conservatism that was underscored in the mid-1990s with the arrival of Yaroslavsky, just in time to deal with near-bankruptcy. Duran's prudence appears very much in the Yaroslavsky mold. He deserves credit for his willingness to consider raises for deserving county workers — as long as they don't compromise the good health of the county's pension system, which stands apart from many of the state's teetering retirement plans. Business leaders like him for his emphasis on economic development.
But fiscal responsibility alone won't meet the county's needs, and voters should be pleased with Duran's long record of advocacy for people with AIDS and HIV, for addicts, for affordable housing, for tenants. He would bring a desperately needed emphasis on better care for the mentally ill, whether they be on the streets, in the jails or in the community. He could be expected to provide some solid guidance to county services such as probation and foster care.
The 3rd District is, like all five Los Angeles County supervisorial districts, absurdly large, with about 2 million constituents. While the populations of the districts are roughly equal, however, their needs are not. Some have large swaths of unincorporated areas, and the supervisor is the virtual mayor and city council for those areas, responsible for delivering basic services such as sanitation, fire protection and libraries.
The 3rd District is different. Much of its unincorporated area consists of protected open space in the Santa Monica Mountains, and most of the population lives in incorporated cities, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, which provide their own fire, police and other services. The district has its pockets of poverty, but more than anyone else on the board, the 3rd District supervisor can devote time and attention to those in need throughout the county — including abused and neglected children, the homeless and those trying to extricate themselves from the cycle of addiction, petty offenses and jail.
That places a premium on both the supervisor's passion for dealing with those issues and on his or her ability to work well with colleagues who represent the parts of the county where the need for help is most acute. Duran has demonstrated that passion and that ability in his activism and his work on his City Council.
Kuehl, to be sure, has a strong record in those areas as well, and her knowledge of and experience in state government would be of great benefit to the county, which gets much of its funding and many of its programming guidelines from Sacramento. Of the two, though, Duran gets the nod because he is also the one most likely to lead the county toward new and better ways of thinking about and doing its business.
On paper, it is not Kuehl but another candidate, former Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver, who more closely resembles Duran. Shriver has the same experience on a part-time city council and the same professed impatience for the status quo.
But where Duran's style is bracing, Shriver's can be unnerving. While pursuing the admirable goals of serving veterans or ending homelessness, Shriver has too often gotten in his own way, needlessly antagonizing colleagues, city workers and others. His prescriptions for county government too often come in the form of blurts that show too little evidence that he understands the complexity of the county's challenges and possible solutions.
The Times endorses John Duran.