Op-Ed

Sacramento's plan to expand the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has nothing to do with diversity

A ballot measure under consideration in the state Senate would weaken the ability of Los Angeles County voters to decide how their local government is run. The bill is neither fair nor wise nor necessary, and legislators ought to be wary of the precedent it would set.

State Constitutional Amendment 12, or SCA 12, would allow California voters to amend the state’s Constitution to require that L.A. County expand its Board of Supervisors from five to seven members and create an elected chief executive position with outsize powers and no accountability to the board.

The Board of Supervisors is arguably the most powerful government agency in Southern California. It determines policy that affects every resident of L.A. County and provides a host of vital services, including law enforcement, fire protection, healthcare, and programs for children, families, seniors and the homeless.

The proposal to expand the county’s board has been billed by its authors, including State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), as a populist measure that would increase diversity in government. Actually, it’s an end run around L.A. by state lawmakers who want to circumvent the will of local residents. That why L.A. voters have repeatedly rejected similar measures in the past.

There are two major problems with the proposed measure. First, it would allow millions of voters up and down the state to dictate how L.A. County is governed — voters in 57 other counties who have no stake in any of the changes that L.A. County might be forced to make as a result. In return, L.A. voters would not have the same opportunity to vote on how these far-flung counties are governed.

This makes no sense. If you’re going to let everybody in the state vote on what happens in your neighborhood, your own vote is rendered essentially meaningless.

Second, the measure would require that L.A. County’s chief executive officer be elected rather than appointed by the Board of Supervisors. This would be a disaster. The job of managing the county’s $30-billion budget and 100,000 employees is a critical leadership position that should not be decided in a popularity contest.

Instead of a tested executive with strong leadership skills, L.A. County would probably end up with a politician, one whose primary qualification is the ability to raise campaign money. This kind of leader would have little to no incentive to work with the Board of Supervisors and could easily stymie much of the progress the county is making on critical problems. The measure would also turn the executive spot into a political power-broker’s dream.

SCA 12 is being pitched as a means toward greater diversity in government, but lack of diversity isn’t a problem in L.A. County. The Board of Supervisors is black, Latina and white; gay and straight; female and male. The current chief executive is an Asian American woman.

Conversely, minority and female candidates have often fared poorly in countywide elections, in part because of the county’s social and economic stratification. Turning the executive role into an elected position is likely to land a white man in the county’s top management job.

It’s disappointing that the state Legislature would consider denying voters in California’s most populous county the right to decide for themselves how their local government should be structured. L.A. County deserves the same autonomy exercised by every other county in California.

Alice A. Huffman is president of the California NAACP.

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