Too Many Cooks Spoil the County

<i> Jerry B. Epstein, one of the original developers of the county's Marina del Rey,is the chairman of the county Energy Commission and the vice president of the Board of Airport Commissioners. </i>

Imagine if New Jersey did not have a governor.

Imagine if companies like Coca-Cola and Pacific Telesis had no chief executive officer.


Now imagine an enterprise with 75,000 employees, serving 8 million people, with a $9-billion budget--and no chief executive. Unbelievable? Not for Los Angeles County.


Today there are more residents in Los Angeles County than in 41 states, yet there is no single elected official who can speak for this entity here at home or in Sacramento or Washington.

Today the County of Los Angeles has an annual budget higher than those of 31 states. It provides services to the public through 35 independent departments and takes the advice of nearly 200 citizen commissions, yet there is no single elected official who is accountable for the executive functions of county government.

This is no way to run a company, or a government. And, as our county’s growth accelerates, the situation deteriorates every day.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are wasted in inefficiencies instigated by an administrative system rife with bureaucratic end runs to five different supervisors divided as often by personal animosity as by political philosophy.

Human tragedies occur daily because of the bureaucratic paralysis. A pathetic example is the inexplicable division of the domestic-violence and child-abuse administrative functions between two entirely separate departments.

The system is broken, and it needs fixing. In Los Angeles County, five supervisors--each of whom represents 1.6 million people--hold executive, legislative and quasi-judicial power in their collective hands, contrary to the system of checks and balances that is the hallmark of American democracy. They have been called kings, and they preside over their districts as if Los Angeles County were a collection of five fiefdoms. And, in defiance of our country’s most cherished principle and a Justice Department order, the five are refusing to revise their boundaries so that the county’s Latino population, which is fast growing toward majority status, might have representation.

A decade ago the voters of Los Angeles County narrowly defeated an initiative to establish a county executive, or mayor. Given that the reform-minded proponents of the initiative--supported by Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the Bar Assn. and the Los Angeles Times, among others--spent only a few thousand dollars and came so close to their objective, it seemed only a matter of time before the status quo crumbled.

Unfortunately, the entrenched interests held fast, and the prospect for efficient government is bleaker today than ever before. Our problems mount, and regional solutions are demanded, yet the supervisors go about their business as usual.

The county budget is twice the size that it was in 1978, 20 times the size of the 1960 budget. Our transportation system is gridlocked--in fact, held hostage by one supervisor determined to control every bus in his district. Our solid and toxic wastes accumulate while the supervisors lack the political will to find a suitable site to locate a new disposal zone. The numbers of homeless and AIDS victims increase. Yet the Board of Supervisors cannot even agree on a simple efficiency like consolidating some of the county’s 50 warehouses, let alone make the tough decisions to improve--or even maintain--our present quality of life.

More distressing still, there appears to be no “light at the end of the tunnel.” As recent elections demonstrated, it is nearly impossible to unseat incumbent legislators at any level of government, most of whom have stockpiled campaign funds to insulate them effectively from electoral challenge. Despite the widespread concern about the inadequacies of the present system, the cost of mounting a county executive initiative today would be prohibitive. Even to get the measure on the ballot, before the voters, would require incalculable resources to neutralize the supervisors’ political and financial power to block it.

So Los Angeles County seems destined to face the future without an independent and organized executive branch of government, and without a single spokesperson for the interests of all the people of the county.

There is a political adage that “all politics is local.” We in Los Angeles County suffer daily because of the dilemmas created by parochial politics. In the decade since the voters last had the chance to speak, Proposition 13 has squeezed local governments, and the problems associated with an aging and overburdened infrastructure have escalated. Still, our “local” supervisors, each of whom represents a population equal to that of almost 20 of our nation’s states, wield unchallenged authority, turning one problem after another over for “further study” without accountability to any other branch of government or to the people.

Los Angeles County is all but immobilized. What kind of crisis will it take to energize our community to bring county government into the 21st Century?