Zev Yaroslavsky looks back on 20 years as an L.A. County supervisor

Zev Yaroslavsky, who served as L.A. County Supervisor for 20 years, talks to Patt Morrison about his legacy

Not many politicians have pop-star first-name recognition, but for four decades, there has been only one "Zev" in Los Angeles. Zev Yaroslavsky, elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1975 and this week departing elected office for good, is leaving the chair he occupied for 20 years, half his political life, on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In his 40 years in politics, he has morphed from a standard-issue liberal firebrand into a self-assured contrarian policy wonk disinclined to open the county checkbook too often. He's seen enough of governance to have some ideas about what works and what doesn't, and he's saying so here.

When you were sworn in as a council member at age 26, Mayor Tom Bradley said, "Congratulations, you're part of the establishment." You said, "But the establishment is not part of me." Have you changed the establishment? Or vice versa?

The only thing that's changed about me is I have a couple more suits than when I first ran. I have a nicer office. I have a little better car. I think I've become more sophisticated about the political and policy world, but at my core, I'm the same person. I pick and choose my fights, but I haven't picked a lot of fights and I've won most of them, the things I care about.

Parts of county government seem intractably hard to fix, like the Department of Children and Family Services.

I think there's been a lot of changes. Philip Browning [DCFS director] is not given enough credit. Like a lot of his predecessors, he's been under attack just because supervisors hardly ever own up to their own failures, but they've got to blame somebody. Every child death in our system tugs at our heartstrings, but the notion that any county in America can be in every bedroom 24/7 and stop an act of violence against a child is raising expectations beyond a realistic level. [Now that] law enforcement and mental health and child welfare all talk to each other, I think we will see a reduction in child fatalities.

Are there fundamental structural problems with how the board operates?

I'll speak for myself: Anybody who thinks he or she has control by micromanaging is a fool. We do not control anything. We are a board of directors. We oversee, we don't execute.

If you're a child welfare director, a welfare director, a public administrator, [working for L.A. county] is the best job in America on paper. How our board treats these individuals is one of the reasons we've had a hard time always getting the best. The board is made up of strong-willed people who insinuate themselves in the business of administration. I understand the desire, but you can't haul [department heads] into your office and say, "I want you to answer these 40 questions," and the next day say, "I have 80 questions for you." I hope that's going to change.

What about the jails? Is it time for a county version of the city's Police Commission to oversee the Sheriff's Department?

It would have to be a commission with power. I expect the new board will approve a civilian oversight commission, which will have no power. It will raise people's expectations to an unrealistic level. In the city, the police commission heads the department. It has statutory power to perform the job. Elected sheriffs are granted certain protections that even the board of supervisors can't trump. If we appropriate $100 million to improve the jails and the sheriff decides, "I'll take $50 million for new helicopters," there's not a darn thing we can do.

We're in negotiations with the Justice Department over a consent decree [for mental healthcare in jails]. I'm not a fan of consent decrees, but in this case, a consent decree is the right way to go. There's nothing that focuses the attention like a federal judge who can haul you into court and say, "I'm going to hold you in contempt unless you do what I say."

What you had in the county jail was a criminal conspiracy. To me, this rivals Rampart. I think [Sheriff] Jim McDonnell is going to have to hit the ground running.

In a liberal county, you have a reputation as a budget hawk. Is it hard to say no?

It's one of the diseases we politicians have — we want to say yes to anything. (Well, sometimes I don't, sometimes they're bogus proposals!) I say no because if I said yes to you, I'd have to say yes to everybody else.

I [told] our county unions that we could do what they did at City Hall and give a 25%, five-year [raise] package, which means people will get laid off, [there will be] tumult in the organization, and eventually the mayor and council will say, "We're going to take back the raises." Or you can do it our way, which is no raises during the recession, everybody can keep working, and when things turn around we will make it up to you, which we are doing.

What's the biggest fiscal hazard for local governments? Pensions? Proposition 13?

Proposition 13 is a policy issue, not a fiscal disaster issue. It changed the way local government is funded, but it didn't defund it. What's the biggest danger? The unfunded liability for pensions, for retiree health. This year we made a huge reform but we still have tens of billions in unfunded liability. Second, salaries. The higher the salaries, the more the burden on the pension system. It's a double whammy.

You've dedicated time and energy to the arts, at LACMA, the Hollywood Bowl and beyond. Any guarantee the county will keep up that support?

I don't think that's going to change. Arts and culture are an important part of who we are, but they're also an economic engine. I've used my political soapbox to educate people that it's not just about the elites, it's about jobs.

You've said that L.A. city government is about middle-class services, and the county is about services to the poor and working class. How can the region keep from drifting into a place with almost no middle class?

It's a challenge. Property values continue to rise, which is good if you own property but not if you don't. Gentrification is a good thing because some rundown communities have economic vitality come back, but, on the other hand, there are fewer places where blue-collar people, minimum-wage workers, can live. One strategy is to build more affordable housing, increase the supply of housing generally in communities where it's appropriate and where the infrastructure allows for it.

In a Times op-ed [in 2008], I wrote that without a single zone change, the city [still] has the capacity to grow housing units by over a million. If you can increase the housing supply for low income people, you can preserve the heterogeneity of the city. If you just leave it to free market forces — I love the free market, but the free market didn't keep us out of the Depression in the 1930s or the recession in 2008. There needs to be some regulation.

Will that solve the problem? I don't know, but if you could with the stroke of a pen place a million new housing units in the city of L.A., I guarantee you the average rental price would plummet.

Will term limits change the supervisor job?

Probably. And not for the better. Term limits have ruined a lot of good government. There's a tendency to make less responsible decisions. If you're here for a long time, you're going to have to own up to what you did.

Has the character of Angelenos changed?

The unique part of Angelenos is that they don't have an inferiority complex. Los Angeles is very comfortable in its own skin. The younger generation is really the force in Los Angeles that's changing the economy, the way we live, the places we shop. It's fun to watch.

Did you come in with a to-do list? Did you check everything off?

I've accomplished everything I set out to accomplish and then some, but things came up which represent unfinished business, like child welfare and the jail business.

First, fiscal stability. I was sworn in [at the board of supervisors] Dec. 5, 1994, at 11 a.m. At 3 p.m., Orange County declared bankruptcy. We were close to bankruptcy a few months later because we were spending 5% to 10% more than we were taking in. We actually recessed a board meeting to take a call from Credit Suisse. We made a pact we would never be put in that embarrassing position again, where some foreign creditor was kicking us in the butt.

Second, to get our health system out of the perpetual red. With the passage of the trauma [center] tax [in 2002] — something I wrote — lightning struck. It took almost 20 years, but this year the health department ended up in the black.

Third, the environment. We now have a master plan for both sides of the Santa Monica Mountains. We've added 20,000 acres of land to the parks system. It's a legacy for the entire community.

Fourth, arts and culture. You know the story of that.

The fifth thing on my agenda was transportation. I've been in the thick of the transportation battles. I was pleased to partner with Mayor [Antonio] Villaraigosa on Measure R to get that passed in the middle of the economic meltdown.

What have you loved about the work?

If it was routine, I would not have lasted one term. But the unexpected is what I live for. Most politicians hate it, but I love going to a community meeting where the crowd comes in hostile, cynical and ready to lynch me and they leave as believers. I will miss it because at the end of the day, I'm a preacher. I believe in what we do. And we are here to serve the people.

What is your list for post-public life?

I don't know yet. Maybe I'll go back to playing poker, as I did in college, supplementing my income! When I was first elected, a high school classmate wrote me a letter and addressed it to "the Honorable Zev Yaroslavsky — dear Honorable Yaroslavsky: I knew you when you were not honorable." I'm leaving on my own terms, but I will no longer be "the honorable Zev Yaroslavsky."

You've gotten this question a lot, and now one more time: Zev Yaroslavsky was thought of as the L.A. mayor of the future — and now never will be. Is supervisor just a better job?

My answer was why would I run for mayor? I could get a lot more done [as supervisor] for the city and the county that I could ever have done as mayor. As mayor you're a captive of your City Council. I'm a big fan of checks and balances, but once you've been in a job that has no checks and balances, you kind of get spoiled! The three best local government jobs in America are mayor of New York, mayor of Chicago and L.A. County supervisor.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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