Poll Finds Discontent With Local Government

Times Staff Writer

An overwhelming majority of Los Angeles County residents are satisfied with the neighborhood they live in and feel a sense of community, even as they feel disenchanted with their local government's performance, a new poll shows.

The survey, by the Public Policy Institute of California and the School of Policy, Planning and Development at USC, found increasing frustration with government on both the county and city levels.

The wide-ranging poll, conducted just before the Iraq war began last week and to be released today, also found that those who call Los Angeles County home are most concerned about crime and gangs, public schools and, to a lesser extent, the economy.

The findings on local government quantify the sometimes conflicting feelings people have about where they live. They also suggest, when compared with previous poll results, that the public has become less satisfied with city and county leadership.

County government is rated as excellent or good in solving problems by 24% of county residents; in a 1994 Times Poll, 59% rated it as excellent or good.

County residents also say they are dissatisfied with their city government, particularly those who live in Los Angeles, where one in four say legislators are doing an excellent or good job. In the 1994 Times Poll, 37% rated the L.A. city government as excellent or good.

San Pedro resident Roland Pugh, 29, said he's unhappy with local government, "just from looking at the state of infrastructure around here." Pugh, an aerospace program manager, said much work needs to be done on the freeways and streets around his home.

But even as county residents express discontent, they applaud the complex, multilayered system used to govern the nation's largest county -- including the county Board of Supervisors, 88 city governments and more than 200 special districts -- saying it ensures that they get the services they need.

"Most people are saying the structure of government we have in Los Angeles is the kind we prefer, where we have a lot of local governments -- and if anything we would like to have more," said Mark Baldassare, research director at the Public Policy Institute of California, a private nonprofit organization that conducts research on economic, social and political issues. "But they're also telling us that city and county representatives don't pay attention to people like themselves."

Consequently, 78% of county residents say they prefer that local voters make most of the important decisions at the ballot box. Only 18% support leaving decisions about big issues up to their local elected officials.

County residents also approve of changing the structure of local government, with nearly two of three telling pollsters that a recently proposed borough system for the city of Los Angeles was a good idea, and a majority of county residents said they favor dividing the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The telephone survey of a random sample of 2,000 county residents was conducted from March 6 to 18. Despite relentless media coverage of turmoil in the Middle East, most respondents identified local problems as the most important facing the region. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

The concern about crime spans geography, age and income levels across the county, but the level of anxiety varies, with Latinos and those living in the central and southeastern parts of the county voicing the most unease.

The top issues are decidedly different from those cited by Orange County residents in a December survey conducted by UC Irvine and the Public Policy Institute. In that poll, Orange County residents said growth, traffic and housing were their major concerns. Only 5% in Orange County listed crime and gangs as their top concern, compared with 26% in L.A. County.

Los Angeles County residents also are concerned about how the state's budget gap will affect public services. Half of county residents believe their area is in a recession.

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