Editorial: New Board of Supervisors must keep pushing forward on equity and justice
When Holly Mitchell is sworn today as a Los Angeles County supervisor, the five-member and now all-female board will be confronted with the region’s deepest challenges in a generation, and perhaps its history: a worsening pandemic, an economic emergency, rampant homelessness, persistent inequity.
To face those problems, the Board of Supervisors will be armed with ambitious programs envisioned largely over the last decade by current board members and Mitchell’s predecessor, Mark Ridley-Thomas. The innovative Care First, Jails Last project targets the justice system and aims to direct would-be inmates away from punishment and toward mental health care, treatment, housing and productive lives rather than a downward spiral of jail and failure. Ridley-Thomas’ anti-racism program, startling for its candor and aspirations, seeks to examine and unwind the structures within each county department that perpetuate systemic racism. Juvenile probation is to be replaced with a more thoroughly rehabilitative program for young offenders. Measure J, approved by voters last month, is meant to fund many of those efforts while limiting expenditures on law enforcement and punishment.
But none of those programs (except for the ballot measure) are self-sustaining, and some have yet to move beyond the ideas and reports phase. Ridley-Thomas has left for the L.A. City Council, and Sheila Kuehl has made clear that she will not seek reelection when her current term expires in two years. The efforts begun by them and their colleagues — Hilda Solis, Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger — require renewed commitment, or progress will be elusive. This is no time for the Board of Supervisors to coast. Mitchell brings a long record of success in the California Legislature in authoring bills to address poverty and justice, and to promote equity.
Los Angeles County is the nation’s largest local government jurisdiction. The 10 million residents of the nation’s largest county include large populations in need of help. The county, far more than cities, the state or the federal government, is responsible for dealing with poverty and misery, so the county’s failures are the people’s tragedies, and its successes their best hope for better, healthier and more abundant lives.
For many years the county was unable to do much for its neediest people. Through much of the 1990s and into today, L.A. County government struggled with federal cutbacks, tax restrictions and budget shortfalls. It briefly flirted with bankruptcy. In the aftermath, the supervisors sometimes acted like Depression babies — survivors of hard times who hid pennies under the mattress and opened their wallets only when compelled. Their parsimony kept the county afloat and the most basic services intact, but limited the board’s ability to do much about growing problems like homelessness.
Now, as the county creates (on paper) the nation’s most revolutionary social service infrastructure, it’s not always easy to see progress on the ground. Thousands of people formerly living on the street have been housed, only to be replaced by thousands more. The supervisors have alternately supported and undermined their public health leaders on responses to the pandemic. Their fights with Sheriff Alex Villanueva have decreased confidence in their leadership, even if it’s the sheriff’s irresponsible actions and statements at the heart of each dispute.
The supervisors can seem insular, arrogant and intransigent. They sometimes appear to relish their current ban on public meetings and to have adapted all too well to a limited schedule, with no video presence and greatly reduced opportunity for direct public input. They often conduct public business during closed sessions. The board’s standing and effectiveness suffer as a result.
There are too few of them to adequately represent their constituents. For a board committed to equity in a county with a Latino population approaching 50%, it is striking that it has never had more than one Latino member — or one Black member, for that matter — or any Asians. A county this size should have at least nine supervisors, with the best number to be determined upon study and a community-driven process.
And they now are facing serious budget problems. Under the circumstances it will be a challenge for them to press forward with their ambitious agenda. Let’s hope they persist, because everyone in Los Angeles County has a lot riding on their success.
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