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Opinion

Column: Patt Morrison asks: Supervisor-elect Kathryn Barger on women running the show in L.A. County

Kathryn Barger
Kathryn Barger recently won a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
(Los Angeles Times)

More than half of all of Los Angeles County’s 4,000 square miles lies within the political geography of the fifth district of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. For 36 years, the district’s elected supervisor was Mike Antonovich. Next week, that changes when Kathryn Barger is sworn in to the job. Barger was born in the district, began working for the county as an intern and wound up as Antonovich’s right-hand woman. The district has become more demographically diverse, as has the board itself. The powerful all-male body that was once called the “five little kings” is now one king and four queens. With big changes afoot here and in Washington, D.C., will the new board be playing a winning hand?

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THIS INTERVIEW ON THE ‘PATT MORRISON ASKS’ PODCAST »

You have spent so long in a position on the staff with Supervisor Antonovich.  Just from what you have seen then and now, what’s the difference between a staff position and a governing position on the Board of Supervisors?

I really hadn’t focused on that part of it until someone who actually was a chief of staff and became a council member said to me: It’s like going from being the chief nurse that heads up surgery, that gets all the equipment ready for the surgeon and knows exactly how the surgery needs to be performed – then all of a sudden, you have to go in and perform the surgery. You know all the instruments that are needed but now you have to execute.

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I know it’s going to be different but I’m confident that, given the relationship I have with my colleagues, that it’s going to be seamless.

What is that relationship?

Sheila Kuehl is one of the first supervisors, aside from Mike, who endorsed me. And when she endorsed me, her comment to me was, We may not agree politically but I know I can work with you, which for me was the highest compliment I could get because it’s about working together.

That’s a relationship I have with Supervisor Kuehl as well as Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor [Hilda] Solis as well. [Incoming Supervisor] Janice Hahn – you know, I worked with her father.

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Did you really? Kenny Hahn –

Yes, I did. When I started working for Mike, [the board] was Kenny Hahn, Pete Schabarum, Ed Edelman, Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich. And Kenny Hahn’s office was right next door, and so I watched him and learned a lot from him.

The board you describe was an all-male board. Now it’s four women out of five. Have you seen a difference in governance style for women?

When I started, the city of L.A. had more women [council members]; they have one now, and it’s just interesting how the county has moved completely in the opposite direction. In the county, even when you look at our department heads, the number of women who are leading as department heads has grown significantly over the last five years.  We provide opportunities across the board and we really do promote based on merit.

It’s really allowed especially working mothers the opportunity to rise up in the ranks of the county and it’s almost organic in the way it’s played out.

In other ways, too, we’ve seen changes throughout Los Angeles. There’s a lot of in-building in the city of Los Angeles, and we’ve just heard there are even more homeless here than some people suspected. What impact does that have on a district that seems to be suburban/rural, not really engaged in what people would think of as urban problems?

When you look around and you see that Measure M just passed for the Metro, increasing our transportation system countywide, the one focus is transit-oriented development, and it’s really talking about locating housing near transportation hubs. That’s going to be important moving forward for L.A. County, because when you look at the density and the population, it’s important to get people out of their cars and into our transit system. The only way to do that is to make it user-friendly, and so when I look at the fifth district, it’s a little more of a challenge.

You talk about the homeless issue – quite frankly, the homeless count is not a perfect science. I think the numbers are underestimated, especially in the Antelope Valley, where it’s so spread out that you can get lost and you don’t get counted. We need to do a better job of looking at how we in the 5th District address population growth and affordable housing and address the homeless at the same time.

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When it comes to homelessness, you are pretty much a housing-first person. Is that where the board is?

I do believe that while it’s ideal to tell people that in order to get housing, we want you to get services, it’s not always going to happen. If the goal is to truly get people off the street, we have to do that first and then build in the services around [that].

Obviously this election was very contentious on a national level but the supervisors are nonpartisan, even though each of you has a party position and a party choice, and you are Republican.  You did say during the campaign that you support neither Donald Trump nor his agenda.  Now we’re looking at two major issues in Los Angeles County and in California. One is Obamacare, and the other, for the county, is Measure M; both of them are very much tied up to federal funding questions. If that funding is no longer forthcoming, or if there isn’t as much of it, how have you positioned yourself in your own mind to deal with these possibilities?

I’ve been trying to follow where the new administration’s going to land on transportation. The great thing about Measure M – and I take my hat off to Mayor Garcetti on this – it is regional, and it is buy-in on a local level, which I think goes far in Washington.

We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for support. We’re willing to pay our fair share, but we also want to draw down federal dollars. Whoever is president, that’s been a traditional approach taken by Congress. They look at how much local money is going to be contributed and base their funding on that. I feel the way that Measure M is written, it is fiscally responsible and actually does take a buy-in by local in order for projects to move forward.

But as it relates to Obamacare, obviously our Department of Health Services under Dr. Mitch Katz has been very aggressive in terms of getting ready to roll without. The question is going to be, if it moves to a block grant style, what impact is that going to have on the county?

I was working in health in 1995 when we almost faced bankruptcy and actually went back to Washington and asked for what’s called an 1115 waiver, which allowed us to move money out of in-patient care into outpatient services. It was more cost-effective but it took a long time.

So I’m keenly interested in how this is going to impact us moving forward because I don’t want us to get in the same position as we were in. We’re still trying to figure out what this is going to look like and what this is, quite frankly, because I don’t think anyone really knows. The concept is a block grant, is what I’m told.  

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The way we do services now really is focusing on outpatients, focusing on treating people before they end up in the hospital. So if they’ve got a chronic illness like diabetes or asthma, we make sure that they’re not ending up in our emergency rooms. So I’m anxious to see how that’s going to look, but we’ve got the best working on it right now.

The board voted to create a civilian oversight commission for the Sheriff’s Department and chose its nine members. What are your hopes for that board, and what are your concerns?

My hopes for the board are that transparency is in place; that was really what Sheriff  [Jim] McDonnell’s goal is, to let the communities know that the sheriffs are accountable.

My concern is that right now, law enforcement is under attack. I remember when, if one police officer was shot, it was front-page news for weeks. Now it seems like each week we’re hearing horror stories about 2, 3, 4 being gunned down.  

My concern is that this is going to undermine some of the work that we’re doing internally to address morale in the Sheriff’s Department. I think we have to have a balance because recruitment not only in L.A. County sheriffs but across the board, in LAPD, is very difficult because people are thinking twice about going into this field. And yet it’s probably the most important job that L.A. County offers.

Your husband was a sheriff’s deputy, so you have some insights that your colleagues don’t have the advantage of.

That is true because I’ve seen it through his lens, and what I can tell you is that sheriffs within the department don’t tolerate that [behavior], just like politicians, I would hope, do not tolerate bad politicians. So I’ve seen it through my husband’s lens, and that is that you don’t condemn the whole force based on one person’s bad decisions.

The board that you cited in the past would be two conservatives, three more liberal or three more conservative, two more liberal.  Supervisor Antonovich, Supervisor [Don] Knabe were looked upon as kind of the fiscal brakes on some things, as Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was too. Where do you see that balance working with a more liberal board?

We saw our first test when the budget came out. One of the great things L.A. County has always done is we’ve always set aside a rainy day fund. The county’s been fiscally responsible in that we’ve always set aside money out of each budget to address a rainy day or economic downturn so that we don’t have a stop of services or layoffs or furloughs. The test was when the budget that was approved actually set aside money to put back into that  rainy day fund. 

I was glad, because that money is discretionary. That money could be spent anywhere.  But the board showed restraint and recognized that we need to have a rainy day fund because we need to prepare, we need to have the ability to sustain services through those times, which we’ve done in the past.

One of the things that’s brought up time and again is how backward the county is when it comes to data collection and analysis. Is that on your list of things to do, to really make sure the county knows where its responsibilities are and where those are being met and not met?

I am shaking my head yes, yes, and yes. Absolutely. That has been a frustration of mine and when we were going through a difficult time, IT was one of the first things on the chopping block, yet in hindsight, probably the best way to create an efficient operation is to invest in IT.

As long as there has been a Los Angeles County, I think there have been five members of the Board of Supervisors. Now we are many, many times more people. Should the board be expanded? Are five people enough to do this job?

The Board of Supervisors is the city council for the unincorporated areas. We represent 88 cities, so I will work with the city of Santa Clarita’s city council, the city of Pasadena – those city councils represent their constituents and provide services within their cities.

I’m not a big proponent of bigger government. If you really do dissect and look at the role the county plays hands-on, I don’t think bigger is better. And when you look at the way our departments are run, there’s a reason why our credit rating went from double-A minus to a double A. it’s because we do a good job of managing.

Supervisor Antonovich was known for things like the issue of the cross on the county seal. He objected to a Wagner festival at the Music Center. What are the kind of things that matter to you, the issues that aren’t about votes on major policy and major budgeting?

If you’re speaking of the cross, I disagree with the findings. [A federal judge agreed with a lawsuit that argued that the cross on the seal’s depiction of the San Gabriel Mission favored one faith over another.] It’s unfortunate that it morphed into something that became a religious discussion when in fact with Kenny Hahn, that was not the case.

For me, people have asked me whether I’m going to keep up doing the animal [adoptions] at [televised meetings of] the board – although my husband has said no more animals at home, so I’ve got to be careful and show restraint.

People have asked me about the trail rides [an annual event started by Antonovich]. I used to ride a lot but not as much anymore, but I’m definitely going to keep up the trail rides.

For me one of the things I’m going to incorporate is working with the Sierra Club. I’ve talked to a member of the Sierra Club – I love to hike. And I think one of the things in this county that people do not realize is the amazing trails that we have. So I want to begin a hike at least once a month and introduce people to use our trails. That’s an easy getting-together, and walking and talking and letting people see what we’ve got in our own back yard.

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