Los Angeles County is shortly to begin a new era, and not just because two new members of the Board of Supervisors will take their seats in December, along with a new sheriff and county assessor. There will be a consent decree that will likely impose federal oversight of the county jails and their treatment of thousands of mentally ill inmates. There will likely be other forms of outside oversight and scrutiny, as investigations and settlement talks continue regarding excessive force in the jails and the treatment of youth in juvenile halls and camps, and as the county reexamines the way it serves children and their families in cases of suspected abuse and neglect. For that oversight, scrutiny and reform to result in actual improvement and not just a spinning of the county's bureaucratic and political wheels, the new elected leaders must bring a high level of expertise and focus.
Of the two candidates for the Board of Supervisors' 3rd District seat, the one who best embodies the qualities needed for the new era is Sheila Kuehl. The Times recommends Kuehl in the Nov. 4 election.
Kuehl brings a solid understanding of the problems in the jails, in foster care and in other aspects of the county's work that is nearly unparalleled for someone not already working in the county arena. That's in part because she has devoted much of her life to championing people in need and on the margins of society — precisely the people county government is intended to serve. And it is in part because Kuehl served 14 years in the Legislature, mastering the intricacies not just of policy but of subjects as mundane yet crucial as funding streams and federal regulations and waivers.
It is important to remember that sorting through complicated funding streams and waivers and using them to provide human services is what county government does. And Los Angeles County, with its more than 4,000 square miles and 10 million people, does more of it than any other "local" government jurisdiction in the nation.
Also vying for the job is attorney, entrepreneur and former Santa Monica mayor and councilman Bobby Shriver. Shriver has grown as a candidate since the primary and has done a better job articulating a thoughtful and creative approach to government.
The decision before voters is complex. Shriver argues correctly that he has solid hands-on experience in local government, yet that he brings a refreshing outsider's point of view. And it is no small matter that he has experience balancing a budget and, importantly, saying "no" to budget demands by public sector labor unions, as he did on the Santa Monica City Council on at least one occasion.
The role of labor must not be underestimated. County employee unions play an oversized role not merely in budget and pension issues but, through hard bargaining over work rules, in management of key county departments. Crucial reforms in the Sheriff's Department, the Probation Department, the Department of Children and Family Services and other offices and agencies will require resources and must be driven by the needs of the public, and not take a back seat to employee demands for greater control in the workplace.
Incumbent Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and incoming Supervisor Hilda Solis are regarded as close allies of labor, and independent campaigns supporting Kuehl have received huge donations from unions representing probation officers, sheriff's deputies and other workers. Given Kuehl's history of strong support for labor during her years in the Democratic caucus in the Legislature, concerns about an inflexible labor majority on the board are real.
Recently, the incumbent county supervisors changed a rule about how employee relations commissioners are chosen. The change appeared to weaken labor's hand and was strongly opposed by public employee unions. When Kuehl was asked whether she would vote to change the system back, she declined to answer, saying she needed to know more about why the supervisors made their decision. But Kuehl's knowledge of the county and its issues is deep, so it is hard to credit her pleas of ignorance. A candidate seeking an office of this consequence should not duck such an important question.
If Kuehl is elected, she must not let the wants of the county workforce take precedence over the needs of the people it is employed to serve.
In the end, though, it is Kuehl's record of fierce advocacy for those in need that should provide confidence in her leadership. Shriver's experience in city government and the not-for-profit sector is valuable, but less suited to the needs of this singular district.
In the other four districts, the county supervisor is also in effect the mayor and city council of unincorporated communities and must ensure delivery of services that cities usually handle, such as police, trash hauling, libraries and planning. The 3rd District, which has been represented for 20 years by outgoing Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, is different. It is made up mostly of cities — Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and several others — that handle their residents' municipal service needs.
The supervisor who represents those areas is therefore free (and counted on) to deal with the county's core mission: the delivery of human services, often with state and federal resources, to the homeless, the poor, crime victims, delinquent and dependent youth, former inmates trying to successfully reenter society. These are the areas to which Kuehl has devoted her adult life as an attorney, a nonprofit founder and administrator, and a lawmaker.
Service in Sacramento has of late been seen by many as a stain rather than a credit on the records of candidates for local office. The Legislature is a partisan world, where members must at least in part serve the leaders of their respective parties, and the skills needed for success in that world may translate poorly to a nonpartisan government in which elected officials must demonstrate greater independence and have no loyalties except to their constituents.
Sacramento-itis is less of a problem for Kuehl. Her former legislative colleagues note, often with admiration and sometimes with frustration or disdain, that Kuehl cannot be counted on to toe someone else's line if she does not believe in the policy behind it. This is what independence — one brand of it, anyway — looks like. It's what Los Angeles County needs at this point in its history. The Times recommends Kuehl for the 3rd Supervisorial District.