Gloria Molina came to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1991 after a federal court threw out the previous year's election and ordered a new one for a new district, drawn with boundaries that gave Latinos something closer to a proportionate share of representation. It was a landmark shift in L.A.'s history and political culture, and it broke up an all-white, all-male board long dominated by a conservative Republican majority.
Molina had arrived in her previous post, on the Los Angeles City Council, in a similar fashion, being elected to a new district shaped in response to Voting Rights Act suits challenging the disenfranchisement of the region's growing Latino population. Had she accomplished nothing on the council or on the Board of Supervisors, she would still deserve notice as a pioneer who pushed her city and county governments closer to true representation.
Zev Yaroslavsky followed Molina to the board in 1994 after nearly 20 years on the City Council, where he had evolved from an upstart and slightly unkempt anti-Soviet activist to a master of both the budget process and the quotable one-liner. Despite his long tenure in City Hall, he retained some of his anti-establishment cantankerousness, and he and Molina brought a questioning and often aggressive attitude to county government.
They came just in time for fiscal meltdown. Orange County declared bankruptcy on Dec. 6, 1994, and for much of the following year it appeared that Los Angeles County would follow, although for different reasons: questionable pension decisions, sloppy budgeting, the collapse of the Cold War defense economy, over-reliance on vanished property tax revenue, too many poor medical patients in the county hospital system with too little insurance. Indeed, all of the above.
Molina, Yaroslavsky and their board colleagues presided over service cutbacks and epic battles with department chiefs trying to defend their work, business leaders demanding deeper cuts and county workers picketing for better wages. Terms such as "belt-tightening" became commonplace. Just as people who grew up in the 1930s became known ever after as "Depression babies" because they scrimped and saved as though hard times could return at any moment, Molina and Yaroslavsky became near-bankruptcy babies, jealously guarding their budget, earning the enmity of labor unions that once backed them and some grudging respect from their conservative colleagues.
Perhaps hardened by the experience, or perhaps just naturally combative and skeptical of bureaucracy, Molina became known for publicly railing against county department leaders, one of whom famously collapsed in the midst of an especially tough grilling and had to be hospitalized. A series of health directors and chief executives saw their careers abbreviated as they crossed, or were perceived to have crossed, the supervisor. She did not shy away from critiquing people who were not her underlings. Sheriff Sherman Block openly scoffed at Molina's criticisms; Sheriff Lee Baca gamely absorbed and ignored them. Board colleague Michael D. Antonovich accused her of "government by tantrum."
The Molina grilling became her trademark and in some sense her legacy. She did not identify every bureaucratic wrongdoing or every mislaid dollar, but when she did find irregularity or plain-old stupidity, she exposed it and dressed down or even ridiculed the supposed perpetrator. Her motivation was often praiseworthy. But her execution was too often counterproductive, generating more tension than progress.
She did put her prodigious advocacy to good use on behalf of a new Los Angeles County medical center and, more quietly, on individual projects that get too little notice, such as housing hundreds of children and their families who used to live on the streets in skid row. In her 1st District, running from downtown Los Angeles to Pomona, she brought services to portions of the San Gabriel Valley that had been long neglected and was regarded as the de facto municipal government for unincorporated areas such as East Los Angeles.
Yaroslavsky served the 3rd District, an area of relatively greater wealth with fewer needs for county services. That gave him an opportunity to become a champion of the arts and culture in a county noteworthy for government's role in providing world-class art and music. He pushed for completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, refurbishment of the Hollywood Bowl, upgrading of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He helped secure large tracts of Santa Monica Mountains land for preservation. He asserted himself on issues of countywide import, including child welfare and homelessness.
Like Molina, he was frustrated by a five-headed county system that leaves no single person in charge, but he remained protective of his authority over his own district. The former activist famously compared county government to the Soviet Politburo. He called for an elected executive, then backed off and promoted a more powerful appointed executive, then limited the CEO's authority over key county departments.
If Molina and Yaroslavsky's most enduring legacy will be fiscal prudence in county government, their deepest failures — along with those of their colleagues — may be a result of that five-headed government. They deferred too much and too long over Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center and must share blame for the lapses in management and patient care that led to the hospital's closing. They could not find the right balance between effective oversight of and deference to the sheriff over abuse of jail inmates. They fumbled their attempts to correct the child welfare system following high-profile deaths.
But both supervisors, who leave office Monday because of a term limits law adopted in the midst of their tenure, brought to their notoriously difficult jobs the invaluable experience gained as full-time members of a large city council. Their simultaneous retirements will strip the board of much wisdom and experience, and will probably impact county government, and those it serves, in ways yet to be determined. They leave their seats to new supervisors with backgrounds very different from theirs; and they leave as well some daunting challenges in governing the world's most populous county.