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California's shameful patronage system in action

California's shameful patronage system in action
The senate floor at the Statehouse Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., on July 9, 2015. (Los Angeles Times)

California farmers are unhappy about Gov. Jerry Brown's appointment of former Democratic state Sen. Isadore Hall III of Compton to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. During a confirmation hearing by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday, grower representatives questioned Hall's suitability for the job. What does a career politician from urban Los Angeles County know about the state's agricultural industry?

They are especially concerned about Hall's ability to be fair to agricultural employers because, though he has no background in agriculture, he has been a faithful supporter of the labor movement, the United Farm Workers in particular. For example, as a senator,  Hall voted for a controversial bill extending overtime protections to farm workers.

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The concern about experience is reasonable. This quasi-judicial board rules on workplace disputes over allegedly unfair labor practices and other complaints, some brought by the UFW. It's pretty complicated stuff, which explains why other the members of the board are lawyers or have significant experience in labor relations, or both.

History shows out-of-work politicians don’t need a relevant resume to get a plum appointment. All they need is experience as a loyal party operative.


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But as history shows, out-of-work politicians don't need a relevant resume to get a plum appointment. All they need is experience as a loyal party operative. And it sure doesn't hurt if they took one for the team.

Hall was supposed to win a race in November for the congressional seat left open when Janice Hahn decided to run for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He had the full weight of the Democratic Party establishment behind him, but somehow lost to underdog Nanette Barragan, a former Hermosa Beach City Council member and fellow Democrat. He was suddenly out of a job, which must have been a blow for someone who had spent 16 uninterrupted years in public service. Fortunately for him, the chairman of the agriculture labor board stepped down in January. That same day, Gov. Jerry Brown announced Hall's appointment to the post, which pays $142,095 a year — a significant bump from Hall's senator base paycheck of $100,111 (state legislators' base pay has since been increased to $104,115).

Hall got the thumbs up from former colleagues on the rules committee Wednesday, and will likely get the job when the full Senate votes. And so it goes in one of the more loathsome practices in state politics: lawmakers approving the appointments of their former friends and colleagues to the few board seats that pay real money.

Most of the state boards and commission are not full-time gigs, and board members are paid just for the cost and time of attending meetings. But a handful of these panels, including the agriculture board and Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, pay their members generous full-time salaries, even though they may meet only monthly.

The unemployment insurance board is a frequent soft landing spot for out-of-work pols. That's where state Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego) wound up after his term ended in December — a consolation prize, perhaps, for Block agreeing to step aside so former Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) could run for his seat as the top Democrat. Now he's the chairman of the five-member unemployment panel (one seat is vacant), serving alongside two former Democratic legislators who were appointed to the board by top legislative Democrats: former Sen. Ellen Corbett  and former Assemblyman Michael Allen.

These former office-holders are not the first recipients of this particular type of patronage, and certainly won't be the last. (Did we mention that open seat on the unemployment board?) And it raises a larger question: If these are truly important jobs that require full-time, six-figure salaried staff, shouldn't they go to people with on-the-job experience? The answer, of course, is yes, and the Legislature should make that a requirement. But this practice is unlikely to end so long as it requires the vote of the same people who some day might need a cushy appointment of their own.

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