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L.A. County Board of Supervisors: 5 jobs politicians especially covet

Clockwise from top left are Los Angeles County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Michael D. Antonovich, Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe.
(Los Angeles Times)

A prominent Latina fresh from President Obama’s Cabinet wants one. A member of the Kennedy clan is eyeing another, as is the woman who made her political mark this year behind a multimillion-dollar media blitz to become Los Angeles’ first female mayor.

Seats on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are among the most coveted, safe and powerful local elected positions in the nation. The five current members have served a total of nearly 100 years, bolstering criticism that the board has been short on accountability.

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But shifts not seen in more than a generation are coming. Four of the “five kings,” as board members sometimes are called, will be gone by the end of 2016 because of voter-imposed term limits. And for the first time since the board was created in 1852, the majority of members could be women in three years.

The turnover, starting with elections in June, will change the makeup of a panel whose decisions can affect millions of the poor and needy dependent on a wide range of county social services, as well as taxpayers, businesses and organized labor, which hopes to increase its clout through the coming political campaigns.

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At weekly downtown meetings in a cavernous chamber, the supervisors make decisions on law enforcement, healthcare delivery, food safety regulation, taxes and land development that can affect a population larger than that of all but seven states. They spend $25 billion a year in public money, often with little oversight.

“There’s really no checks and balances,” said Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), whose father served on the panel for four decades and whose family name adorns the county’s giant Hall of Administration where the board convenes. “They create laws, they execute laws and sometimes they even sit in judgment of their own laws.”

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The benefits are considerable. Each supervisor is allotted $3 million a year for staff, cars, office expenses and pet projects, on top of a $179,000 annual salary.

The public and the media pay less attention to the board than to City Hall leaders two blocks away in the Civic Center, partly because of the dizzyingly complex array of state and federally mandated social programs that officials spend much of their time managing.

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Politically, that opacity can be attractive. “You can have a tremendous amount of influence and not run into the buzz saw people run into in more visible offices like City Council or mayor,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

The board’s obscurity has prompted one former state lawmaker who is seeking a seat to send out “L.A. County 101" emails, explaining members’ duties.

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“Everywhere I go, when I tell people I’m running for Los Angeles County Supervisor in 2014, they ask, ‘What do supervisors do?’” wrote Sheila Kuehl in her first missive to voters. One recent explainer reeled off a litany of statistics to illustrate the breadth of county responsibilities, including the 16 million books checked out of county libraries, 60,000 marriage licenses issued and 70 million visitors to county beaches annually.

Some contend that the relationship between board members and the 2 million residents each represents needs to be fundamentally reset.

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“There’s a disconnect — that’s why I refer to them as kings and queens,” said former state Sen. Gloria Romero. “They are in an obscure, hard-to-get-to building in downtown Los Angeles where you have to pay an arm and a leg to park before you walk in and bow down to the majesties that prevail.

“They are invisible to their subjects.”

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Supervisors say they are in constant contact with cities, community groups and constituents despite the sprawling size of their districts and added responsibilities, including overseeing the county’s mass transit system. Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said he regularly meets with constituents at organized events and less formally in settings such as Sunday church services. He added that board members have larger staffs than other local elected officials to deal with constituent issues.

Board members wrestle with issues affecting society’s most vulnerable — the destitute, the sick, abused children, the mentally ill, said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles City Council member.

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“In the city, few if any decisions we made were life-and-death decisions — trim trees now or trim trees in three years,” he said. At the county, he added, “I have had many a sleepless night, literally and figuratively, on some of the decisions we’ve had to make over the years.”

Through the decades, entrenched county supervisors have rarely faced serious political challenges. That was partly the argument for term limits approved by voters in 2002.

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Now, each board member is limited to three four-year terms. Gloria Molina, who represents the eastern rim of the county, and Yaroslavsky, who represents the Westside and part of the San Fernando Valley, are the first affected and will leave office next year.

Supervisors Don Knabe, who represents southern and coastal communities, and Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the northern area of the county, will be termed out in 2016. Antonovich, the longest-serving member at 33 years, had been on the board more than two decades before term limits were approved. The clock began ticking on his 12-year maximum when he was reelected in 2004.

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In early jockeying this year, the contest to replace Yaroslavsky appears to be drawing the most interest from potential high-profile contenders who could mount well-funded campaigns.

Kuehl, who was the first openly gay California state legislator and first female speaker pro tem of the Assembly, has announced her candidacy. Also considering entering the race are Wendy Greuel, L.A.'s former controller who lost the city mayor’s race in May; former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, brother of California’s former First Lady Maria Shriver and nephew of President John. F. Kennedy, and L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian.

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Kuehl, a former Westside state lawmaker, has raised nearly $250,000 toward a campaign that some observers say could ultimately cost millions. She is highlighting her experience dealing with statewide issues, which she says closely parallels the duties of a county supervisor.

At this point, in Molina’s district, President Obama’s former Labor secretary, Hilda Solis, appears to have the field largely to herself. She has raised more than $300,000.

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After serving in the state Legislature, Congress and the Obama administration, Solis said she chose to return to the Los Angeles area to be able to spend more time with her family.

Born in Silver Lake, Solis grew up in La Puente and was first elected to the Rio Hondo Community College District. She says she would use her state and federal connections to help more people prosper in the county district that includes East L.A. and downtown. “That’s what I forged my career in,” she said. “I miss that.”

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The race to replace Antonovich and Knabe, the board’s two Republicans, will formally begin in two years. Already, one prominent lobbyist has drawn up a list of more than a dozen theoretical candidates for Knabe’s seat, with Harbor area Congresswoman Hahn the most prominent. Hahn sidestepped questions about a possible campaign.

The coming upheaval, combined with the effects of term limits, could alter the political dynamics of the board. Among other things, it could make the body a more traditional, local government steppingstone for career politicians as opposed to a secure, low-profile position of power where officials settle in for decades.

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In addition, public employee unions have an opportunity to build more sympathetic alliances on the board if they back winners in districts being opened by the departures of Yaroslavsky and Molina, Democrats who have shown independent streaks on fiscal and labor issues. Solis generally is seen as a strong friend of labor and has already garnered major union endorsements.

“Labor will probably have the best deal they’ve ever had in terms of having two sitting champions out of five board members,” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.

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Proponents of term limits believe the changes will bring much-needed new blood to the board. But critics warn they could increase politicking and dysfunction and elevate the influence of lobbyists and bureaucrats, similar to the problems some argue have been created in Sacramento.

Some officials, including Hahn, say it can take more than 12 years for supervisors to truly leave a mark on their district and the county. Many of her father’s signature accomplishments — Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, creating the state’s first paramedic program, establishing freeway emergency call boxes — took place in his second and third decades in office, she noted.

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“My dad was elected to his 10th term before he retired, so when people asked what he thought about term limits, he thought 10 terms was probably good enough,” Hahn said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com


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