After it was repeatedly rejected by Los Angeles County voters, a proposal to expand the county Board of Supervisors is gaining traction in the state Legislature amid complaints that the panel is too small to properly serve the most populous county in the U.S.
A plan to ask voters statewide to expand the board from five to seven members and create a new, elected county chief executive officer has sailed through two legislative policy committees despite a split in the county's delegation to the Legislature.
Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) leads a group of 10 senators who have introduced legislation for a statewide ballot measure based on the belief it would make the board more representative of and accessible to constituents.
With nearly 10 million residents, L.A. County is nearly twice the size of the second most populous county in the nation, Cook County in Illinois.
Currently, each board member represents about 2 million people.
"Representing more than 1 million people makes access to a supervisor nearly impossible for an individual when they need help to access county services, a key function of local government," Mendoza said during a recent legislative hearing.
The measure was approved by the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee on a 4-1 vote Wednesday, but still needs approval by the full Senate and Assembly.
Sen. Henry Stern (D-Woodland Hills), the committee's chairman, voted against the measure. He said he was wary of having Los Angeles County government dictated by the Legislature and voters in other counties, including San Francisco.
"I am uncomfortable making these decisions here in the Legislature," Stern said. On board members, he added, "If we feel they are not representing us well, we can vote them out of office."
The measure is opposed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which said in a letter to lawmakers that the proposal "completely undermines the ability of county residents to self-govern" and the decision should be one for county voters to make, not voters statewide. County voters have rejected board expansion measures eight times going back to 1926.
Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county is served well by a chief executive officer and its most diverse board ever.
"The people of Los Angeles County are perfectly able to decide what's best for them and should not be dictated to by lawmakers in Sacramento imposing their will upon the county," Ridley-Thomas said.
Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles) said the proposal would have a better chance as a state ballot measure because county elections are more easily dominated by those holding power in Los Angeles County who want to protect the status quo.
Backers said the measure would hold down costs by prohibiting the expanded board's budget from exceeding funding in 2021, and limit the new elected county executive's pay to the salary of the presiding judge for the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The measure was supported in the committee by Democratic Sen. Benjamin Allen of Santa Monica and Hertzberg.
"All I know is the people in the San Gabriel Valley don't have a hell of a lot in common with people of the San Fernando Valley in terms of issues that affect them on a day-to-day basis," Hertzberg said, describing one district. "It is just too damn big."
Supporters say the expansion would also increase the ethnic diversity of the board and make it more representative of the county's population.
With three of the five seats held by whites, that racial group has 60% of the board's representation, though it makes up only 30% of the county's population, according to Alan Clayton, a demographics expert who has been a redistricting consultant to Democrats.
Latinos make up 48% of the county's population, but 20% of the board's representation, with one seat. A seven-member board would allow for two seats where Latinos can elect a candidate of their choice. In addition, one district could be drawn to eventually allow Asian American voters to elect a candidate of their choice, Clayton said.
"In the largest county in the country, with the largest Latino population, suddenly Latinos would have the ability to be influencing the board on policy issues where right now they don't have the ability," Clayton said.
State Constitutional Amendment 12 has steadily advanced through the Legislature. One possible motivating factor for lawmakers may be that it will create new political opportunities for legislators in a state where there are more ambitious Democrats than there are available higher levels of office, observers said.
The job of elected chief executive could have more power than mayor of Los Angeles, with oversight of a much larger jurisdiction.
State lawmakers make $104,118 annually, but don't get state pensions. Members of the Board of Supervisors get pensions and salaries of $191,612.
"Term-limited legislators want new jobs that they can run for," said John J. Pitney Jr., political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "Even with a seven-member board, each supervisor would represent nearly 1.5 million people. That translates into a lot of power, prestige and perks."