It looks as if the five Los Angeles County Supervisors have concluded that they cannot win the voting rights lawsuits filed against them by the Justice Department and civil rights groups. If so, this is a welcome, if belated, revelation that could save taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees alone. But there's no guarantee that an out-of-court settlement would improve our troubled local government. It might just slap a new coat of paint on the existing political structure in an effort to preserve it just the way it is.
The suit, filed by the Justice Department earlier this year, charges the supervisors with violating the 1975 Voting Rights Act when they reapportioned their five districts in 1981. The suit claims they drew district lines to dilute the potential voting strength of the county's large Latino population, making it unlikely that a Latino could be elected to the board. With the trial due to begin later this month, U.S. Dist. Court Judge David V. Kenyon has urged attorneys for the county and the federal government--and for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which have intervened--to find a compromise to avoid an inevitably long trial.
Published reports indicate that the compromise being discussed involves redrawing lines in order to concentrate a higher percentage of Latino population in either Ed Edelman's 3rd District or Pete Schabarum's 1st District. If numbers were the only issue, that would be a logical compromise: Most of the county's Latino residents live around Central Los Angeles, which Edelman represents, or in the San Gabriel Valley, which is Schabarum's turf.
But to really improve local government in Los Angeles County, much more must be done. A compromise that kept the number of supervisors at only five would be unacceptable, even if it led to the election of a Latino or other minority. The plaintiffs and Judge Kenyon must move to expand the board to at least seven members--and perhaps even to nine or more.
It's also true that Los Angeles County needs a strong executive to balance what often are parochial interests of the districts, where supervisors operate like kings in fiefdoms. But this is another issue for another time.
Expanding the board would offer more Angelenos better representation and give the county a good start toward better government. Five representatives simply cannot serve 8 million people adequately.