L.A. County Eager to Do Business With a 'Favorite Son'

Marc B. Haefele is a reporter and columnist at LA Weekly

It may have been a precedent: The mayor of Los Angeles County, Supervisor Mike Antonovich, wrote a letter of congratulations to the mayor-elect of Los Angeles, James K. Hahn, in which he offered the county's cooperation in making the city's long-torpid downtown a better place, creating a system of regional airports that would increase use of Lancaster-Palmdale and provide a rapid-transit loop around the center city. The letter, while partly an official goodwill gesture, symbolized a general sigh of relief in county headquarters that the sometimes fractious reign of Richard Riordan in the county's largest city is over. Moreover, his successor can fairly be called the county's own favorite son.

Did someone say "mayor of Los Angeles County"? Well, that's Antonovich's favored term for the office he holds, the Board of Supervisors' chairmanship that nowadays virtually rotates among its five members every year. But Antonovich's enthusiasm for Hahn's mayoral victory was already clear at Hahn's June 5 electoral celebration.

Yet, while Antonovich endorsed Hahn, he might have been nearly as happy had Antonio Villaraigosa won: Of all the supervisors, Antonovich was most miffed by Riordan's outburst in May, when the former mayor charged that unspecified board members were captives of "special interests," also left unspecified. As one Antonovich deputy put it, "Things had nowhere to go but up" from that point.

Which had, apart from recent and significant agreements to build Disney Hall and a joint city-county crime lab, been jammed in neutral, except on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, where city and county members seemed sometimes to be pulling in opposite directions. Actually, this is almost a tradition. Like two distantly related cousins stuck with the same odd name, the twinned municipalities have more often stressed their differences than their interdependence. For the most part, the county relates to the 87 independent cities within its boundaries by collecting property taxes and providing urban services like law enforcement and firefighting on a contract basis. Los Angeles has its own police and fire departments, but the county also supplies L.A., like most county cities, with such basic services as courts, social welfare for adults and children, jails and a public health system that supports more than 1 million under-and uninsured Angelenos.

Board members feel the city should take more interest in such matters and that, under Hahn, it will. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who the new mayor's late father, Kenneth Hahn, handpicked as his successor, has "known Jim since before I can recall." But she said her endorsement of him was also influenced by the fact that Hahn was the only citywide elected official ever to visit King-Drew Medical Center, the county hospital that serves much of Los Angeles' black and Latino populations.

Burke suggests that Hahn will greatly improve city-county relations because he has, in a sense, grown up in the county hierarchy. It turns out that it wasn't just the inner-city population that voted for Hahn because of his late father's achievements. So did many county officials who worked closely with the still generally beloved supervisor.

"We feel Jim is part of the county family," Burke says. "We're more of a family than City Hall--people stay here for 30 years. And Jim has been coming to our major events. He won't have to learn. He's had a presence. I think he has more contacts here than I do," the 10-year-veteran supervisor says.

"He won't be shocked to find out about things like the general need for more parks," says Don Knabe, the board's most recently elected member. Knabe endorsed neither runoff candidate because, the moderate conservative says, he saw no philosophical differences between them. He now looks forward to working with Hahn, however:

"He lives in my district and, like my son, he went to Pepperdine." Unlike the other board members, though, Knabe has a roiling city-versus-county issue "right in the heart of my district"--the Riordan-backed proposal to expand Los Angeles International Airport. Knabe not only represents the Playa del Rey-Westchester-Marina areas that border the airport; he also represents the South Bay cities over which LAX flights tend to circle and bank "day in and day out." A key figure in the airport-expansion opposition, Knabe cautiously allows that he believes Hahn will live up to his campaign promise to oppose LAX expansion. But Knabe also told Riordan that, if the expansion were pushed, "we'll become your worst enemy."

"Things are on hold now," Knabe says. "Well be watching to see who Jim appoints as his airport commissioners," a likely indicator of what the new mayor's airport plans will be.

Zev Yaroslavsky, one of two supervisors who endorsed Villaraigosa (the other, Gloria Molina, said through her spokeswoman that she was too busy with health matters to comment), says, "I don't accept that city-county relations are a shambles." But he added that "Riordan had his own way of dealing with" city-county issues. Hahn, he says, can only benefit from understanding general county problems, as well as those of the city. Noting that Hahn grew up in the Hall of Administration, Yaroslavsky added that if he follows his instincts, he'll do fine.

Right now, Hahn clearly has got the goodwill of the board majority. And it's interesting that the board's current chair, who represents the county's northernmost and farthest-flung district, has proposed ground-level cooperation and social-service assistance in making Los Angeles' problematic center a better place to work, shop and live. But if Hahn wants to keep the honeymoon rolling, the city and the nation's most populous county had better come to terms, and quickly, on the blistering airport issue. There's Knabe who wants less air traffic in his district, and Antonovich who wants a lot more in his. If the new mayor can't figure out a way, somehow, to please both, he is going to end up wishing that city-county relations were back in last month's wary neutrality.

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