Supervisors: Our Powerful 'Little Kings' : Government: Five white males govern a multi-ethnic county of 9 million. How to change the rules?

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

Let's play "Final Jeopardy." The category is "Government and Politics." The answer is: "The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors."

What's the question?

Time's up! The question is: What is the second most powerful political office in the United States?

Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. But other than the governor and the state's two U. S. senators, the supervisors are arguably the most powerful officials in California.

Here's another answer: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial counties. And the question: What counties would be included under a new regional commission with power to override local decisions--as proposed in a bill before the Legislature? But more about that later. For now, let's consider why the unreconstructed job of supervisor is so attractive.

One reason is because politicians get to wield their power close to home--they don't have to trek to Washington or Sacramento. And in Los Angeles, they are one of five "little kings," not one among 535 or 120 policy brokers.

More than other local officials, the supervisors tend to exercise power outside the public glare. In general, the media finds county government boring and arcane. No sexy issues or media stars here. The board has been described as "invisible government." And the supervisors like it that way.

What other governing body has gone essentially unchanged for 138 years? In 1852, when the county's population was a mere 3,350, the board had five members. In 1990, with a population of nearly 9 million, the board has five members. How can it be expected to cope with the complex problems of such a diverse population?

All of this helps explain the fireworks caused by Supervisor Pete Schabarum's last-second decision not to run for reelection. His exit puts at risk the balance of power held, for much of the '80s, by conservative board members Schabarum, Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana.

That also defines the current struggle over Los Angeles County reapportionment. It is ironic that the governing board of the state's most ethnically diverse county has no minority or women members. Boards of supervisors in neighboring Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties each show more female or minority representation.

The U.S. Department of Justice and civil-rights groups have sued Los Angeles County, charging that the all-white-male Board of Supervisors violated the federal Voting Rights Act and diluted Latino political strength by dividing the county's largest ethnic group among three supervisorial districts. The plaintiffs are seeking the creation of a new, primarily Latino district.

As a result, county supervisors find themselves embroiled in a landmark court case, fighting not only for ideological control of the board but for their own political survival.

Why is this board so powerful? No other California county board of supervisors has such clout. What makes this local office so attractive that members of Congress and state legislators jealously eye the opportunity to run?

It is a profound political truth that he (or she) who has the gold, makes the rules. So money is part of the answer, despite the fact that local governments' fiscal clout has eroded statewide since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

Los Angeles supervisors control a $9.6-billion budget--although about half is earmarked state and federal funds--and the implementation of services that daily impact the lives of county residents, including law enforcement, health services and welfare.

Under the longstanding "divide by five" rule, most budget funds are divided equally among the five supervisorial districts. That means programs like public heath centers, which are needed more in some communities than in others, go underfunded.

That is one reason why board representation is of such overwhelming importance to minorities, who depend on county health and welfare services in significant numbers.

The supervisors not only pass laws and budgets, they are also responsible for policy implementation and, in some cases, act as an appeals board. What other local government wields such combined legislative, executive and quasi-judicial powers?

The impact of that concentrated clout is intensified by the sheer size of Los Angeles County. Its population is larger than that of 43 states and its "gross national product" is exceeded by only 13 nations. "Los Angeles County is a state masquerading as a county," said Bonnie Armstrong, chairperson of the League of Women Voters' County Government Reform Committee. But states have governors and legislatures. Because the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors functions as both, "There's not a check or balance in the system," Armstrong said.

Part of the board's attractiveness lies in this lack of accountability and in the low political risk from which it stems. There is hardly a seat safer for a savvy politician--the power of incumbency is awesome. Once elected, Los Angeles County supervisors can generally count on a long tenure. Seldom are incumbents disturbed by the inconvenience of having to wage a real election campaign.

Will anything change? The answer depends in great part on U.S. District Judge David Kenyon, the presiding judge in the county redistricting case.

It is within his purview to redraw district lines. But would that be enough of a fix for this 19th-Century anachronism? Plaintiffs in the redistricting suit have asked Judge Kenyon to consider expanding the board to alleviate Latino underrepresentation. But whether he can unilaterally order an increase in board membership is a matter of dispute.

Neither increased membership or new district lines can ensure greater representation of women and minorities, as some reformers argue. Power cannot be bequeathed; it has to be taken. Underrepresented groups must register, vote, build coalitions and field strong, well-financed candidates to win.

The League of Women Voters suggests a "separation of powers" between an enlarged board, which would act as a legislature, and an elected county executive who would "assume full responsibility and accountability for the administration of county services." Opponents argue that would simply create another level of bureaucracy; they warn that one more political office is one too many. And how long could such a powerful job remain immune from the pressures of special interests, whose contributions fund county election campaigns?

The problems of modern living--environment, crime, transportation, poverty--are not contained within artificial local boundaries. Any honest attempt at restructuring county government cannot ignore that reality. That may mean looking beyond current representation schemes to some form of regional government, such as that contained in legislation introduced by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

The bill defines seven geographic regions, including a Los Angeles region that consists not only of Los Angeles County, but Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and Imperial counties as well. For each geographic area, a regional commission would have broad authority over a wide range of decisions concerning transportation, air and water quality and growth and could override decisions made by cities and counties which conflict with regional master plans.

Despite Brown's support, the concept will have a difficult time surviving the legislative process. Local governments and existing agencies may fight it, because, in politics, nobody voluntarily surrenders turf.

So here is the real question: Who is going to decide the future of county government?

And the wrong answer is: five white males--or five anybodies--with little visibility or accountability to the citizens they serve.

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