At election time, unincorporated areas are a force to be reckoned with
Kim Martin’s small neighborhood on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County is entirely surrounded by Claremont. But in governance, politics and aesthetics, it’s miles apart from the verdant, pristinely regulated college town known as “the city of trees and PhDs.”
The high standards of Claremont’s carefully landscaped properties, whose designs must be approved by an architectural commission, give way at a horseshoe-shaped pocket of unincorporated territory that Martin and a few dozen others call home.
There are no streetlights or sewers here. A horse corral takes up the side yard of one home; an RV sits in front of another. A tangle of brown lawn adorns a lot where the owner, protesting the high rates, stopped watering.
It’s laissez-faire living that suits Martin, 64, a university professor who put down roots in this nameless residential outpost 30 years ago.
“I like being autonomous,” she said, sitting in the living room of the open, ranch-style home she shares with her children and grandchildren, one of the few houses with a sidewalk out front. Claremont, she said, is “pretty picky about a lot of things.... I don’t want somebody telling me what color I can paint my front door.”
There are scores of such neighborhoods throughout L.A. County, often anonymously blending in with the larger communities around them. But at county election time they are a political force to be reckoned with — or at least dutifully acknowledged.
On June 3, voters in a sprawling county supervisorial district stretching from downtown Los Angeles to the San Bernardino County line will choose a new representative to deal with pressing regional issues that include reforming the scandal-plagued jail system, remaking a foster care system after a series of high-profile child deaths and injuries, and prioritizing billions of dollars in upcoming transportation projects.
But county election cycles involve a more personal transaction for hundreds of thousands of residents in an array of orphaned neighborhoods like Martin’s, left behind as L.A. County’s 88 cities formed and gobbled up the most desirable land around them over the last 160 years.
The five elected members of the county board serve, in effect and by default, as the mayor and city manager for 1 million people in a wildly diverse patchwork of odds-and-ends communities scattered across open desert, coastal mountain ranges, tony hillside suburbs and dense urban areas. They oversee all the tasks normally performed by City Hall: ensuring public safety, repairing streets, painting over graffiti, building parks and libraries, approving new commercial developments.
Gloria Molina, the longtime board member who represents the eastern county and is being forced from office by term limits, says looking out for the 325,000 unincorporated area residents who depend on her for basic services is “the most important part of what I do.”
Taken together, these county-run communities exceed the combined population of the county’s second-, third- and fourth-largest cities: Long Beach, Glendale and Santa Clarita.
And their needs, issues and degree of political engagement are as varied as the terrain of their neighborhoods.
Gloria Chavez has spent three decades fighting for her hillside community of City Terrace in East Los Angeles.
“It goes back to your representative,” she said. “If the representative pushes the different departments, they’re going to work.”
Chavez — “as pushy a broad as I am,” Molina said fondly — first organized her neighbors 28 years ago to lobby then-Supervisor Ed Edelman to replace a dilapidated county library. Since then, she has pushed for cleaner streets and a new sheriff’s substation, and fought against a proposal to rebuild a closed women’s jail up the road. She already has the ear of Molina’s presumed successor, Hilda Solis, who previously represented the area in Congress.
Molina, who is supporting Solis’ run, said she hopes her successor will maintain the progress made in unincorporated communities during her 23-year tenure. Molina annually uses more than $800,000 of her 1st District discretionary spending to bolster sheriff’s patrols in the communities of East L.A. and Valinda, an effort that has helped reduce gang activity and crime.
Molina also points to refurbished parks, libraries and community centers in county areas, including a centerpiece of services at the upgraded East Los Angeles Civic Center. Next door, Belvedere Park, once dangerous and run-down, now has sailing competitions on its lake, a popular skate park and — in the works — a new Olympic-size pool.
“I’m very proud that we make a major investment in East L.A.,” she said. “Cities are envious of what we do.”
Not everyone in East Los Angeles — a bustling urban community of more than 126,000 — is happy with county rule. Activists have mounted several unsuccessful attempts to form their own city. The last effort failed in 2012, when a regional government panel concluded that the proposed city lacked the economic base to support adequate municipal services.
Some residents and business owners continue to complain they aren’t given enough say in how their community is run.
“It’s just not possible for one person to represent you like five council members and a city manager,” said Ben Cardenas, president of the East Los Angeles Residents’ Assn., who led the cityhood effort. Cardenas said he sees a “new opportunity” for change with the coming election.
Molina said she understands residents’ desire for self-determination and hopes to set up an advisory town council for East L.A. before she leaves office later this year.
Solis, who grew up in unincorporated La Puente, declined to take a position on East L.A. cityhood. But she said she would listen to residents and businesses in unincorporated areas and work with them to secure more services and economic development.
“I think this is an opportunity, with change, to have those kinds of discussions and dialogue and really come up with ideas that are generated in the community to see where development can be fostered,” she said.
Molina’s district has the largest concentration of county constituents living in unincorporated territory. But questions about how best to manage and govern such areas could face both new and continuing county board members in the years ahead.
Los Angeles County has taken a hands-off policy on annexations of county pockets by adjacent cities. To the south, Orange County has pushed for consolidation of unincorporated neighborhoods with cities as a means to improve efficiency and reduce county costs.
There and in L.A. County, unincorporated communities don’t always go along, and cities don’t always agree with consolidation proposals. Compton and Carson in Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ central and south county district are locked in an ongoing battle over annexation of Rancho Dominguez, a heavily industrial area sandwiched between the two cities. At the same time, nearby East Rancho Dominguez is fighting an annexation bid by Compton, arguing that the city wouldn’t be able to maintain the level of services provided by the county.
In the Claremont area, unincorporated residents have fended off several annexation attempts by the city. There’s no such proposal now, and Martin said she’s more concerned about the local school board races than the county supervisors.
Her neighbor, Rich Hottel, 55, walking his three shepherd mixes on Glen Way, laughed when asked if he had seen any of the county supervisor candidates campaigning in his neighborhood.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “We never see anybody here. We’re lucky if we see the sheriff’s or Fire Department.”
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