Petulant Princes

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has done some pretty arrogant and dumb things over the years, but we are hard pressed to think of any move as petulant and shortsighted as its decision to fight a federal lawsuit that could improve political representation for the county's more than 2 million Latinos.

We suspect that even some members of the board are uncomfortable with its stance, which is why they let County Counsel DeWitt Clinton announce that a "vigorous defense" will be waged on behalf of the five white men who now rule Los Angeles County like little princes. Clinton's tough-talking stance is made easier by the fact that the board also decided to retain a Century City attorney, at $235 per hour, to help him prepare the county's case. At that price the lawyer must be pretty good. He'd better be, because the county doesn't have much of a case.

Start with the fact that there has never been a Latino on the board since it was established almost 140 years ago--this in an urban region, first settled by the Spanish, whose largest ethnic minority has always been Mexican and whose Latino population is still among the fastest-growing in the nation. That prima facie evidence even convinced conservatives in the Reagan Administration's Justice Department, like former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and Assistant Atty. Gen. William Bradford Reynolds, that something was seriously amiss in Los Angeles County's apportioning of supervisorial districts. That's why they began threatening the board with legal action under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits election practices that tend to discriminate against minority groups.

Threatening is a key word in that last sentence. For Justice Department officials gave the county board every chance to rectify the fact that, when its districts were reapportioned in accordance with the 1980 census, a large Latino population was deliberately divided among three separate districts rather than put into one or two of them. Only when the county board stalled and resisted for several months did the federal government finally file suit--a move that was matched by Latino civil-rights advocates who filed lawsuits of their own.

It is still possible to settle this mess out of court, as the Los Angeles City Council did when a similar lawsuit was filed against the city two years ago. The council, of course, has hardly been a model of civic rectitude and insight over the years, so it also went through a lot of screaming and fussing before giving in to the inevitable. But it did so, and the city of Los Angeles is better for it: The council is now a more representative body than it was when the city's reapportionment battle began. Now it is the county's turn, and the result is likely to be the same. Only the stubbornness of five frightened men stands in the way. Their arrogant stance is insulting enough to Los Angeles' Latino community, but in fact it should anger every single taxpayer in the county. For it is our money that is going to be wasted paying for the Gang of Five's legal folly.

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