Ron Kaye: L.A. County is too big not to fail

The walls of L.A. County's Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration are so thick and shielding of public scrutiny that even the old-line Commies in charge of the Kremlin in Moscow would be envious.

The city's newspapers have assigned teams of reporters over the years to try to break through those walls of secrecy, but they've rarely been able to learn much, apart from the complete failure of the county Department of Children Services and the horror-show of the public health system.

The all-powerful county supervisors, given to boasting they have the best jobs in politics, once enforced a formal rule on county employees that made speaking to the press without prior approval of a supervisor grounds for dismissal. It's now just an unwritten rule, but all 100,000 county employees know their jobs are on the line if they blow the whistle.

Years ago, supervisors assigned each department to a specific supervisor for oversight, but that provided individual accountability so they collectively ran the whole operation. When even that made them collectively accountable, they hired a chief executive officer so somebody other than themselves could be blamed for all that went wrong.

They gerrymander their districts for their own benefit, have access to so much campaign cash and each representing such vast areas that they are all but unbeatable. None has lost a re-election bid since 1980.

That's the year Mike Antonovich knocked off talk-show host Baxter Ward. Since then, Antonovich has reigned supreme over a carefully drawn district that runs across the northern half of the San Gabriel Valley through the tri-cities and a strip of the San Fernando Valley to the far north of the county.

He's unfazed by criticism, so it was natural for him to tackle the dirty job of trying to cure a blatant violation of the state's Brown Act requiring all public meetings of elected bodies be open and above board.

The supervisors were caught red-handed contemptuously violating the open meeting law in a series of illegal meetings last September, culminating in a group chat behind closed doors with Gov. Jerry Brown over dumping felons from state prisons into the county jail under prison realignment.

Even the sleepwalking District Atty. Steve Cooley cried foul, although he waited four months to conclude it was impermissible. He's done that before on more than one occasion, but found each time it really didn't matter — no harm, no foul.

Even the courts have faulted the supervisors for their penchant for illegal closed-door meetings, and have imposed fees and sanctions; but the supervisors are so arrogant that the practice of excluding the public from the public's business goes on.

Last month, Board President Zev Yaroslavsky set off a firestorm of criticism by proposing that people who come to be heard by their elected officials be allowed just three minutes in total to comment on the entire agenda, which can number more than 60 items. Absolute monarchs were known to be more generous with their precious time.

When county Counsel Andrea Ordin make a legal fool of herself in trying to justify the closed-door meeting with the governor as if it were a legally permissible conference with top law enforcement officials over an imminent terrorist threat to public facilities, it was left to the politically untouchable Antonovich to propose an audacious solution.

“I believe that the board representing 10 million citizens ought to have that ability to speak with the elected governor of their state or the elected president of the United States,” he declared, a goal the supervisors are now pursuing.

Fortunately, others are also pursuing this matter — others like Leslie Dutton of the Full Disclosure Network that two years ago sent a video crew to Washington to document a series of illegal meetings the supervisors held with government officials; and like attorney Terry Francke of California Aware, who filed a lawsuit against the supervisors on Feb. 3 over the meeting with the governor.

“The only available answer is to get them to admit they broke the law, renounce the practice in the future and turn over any record of the actual discussion that took place in the closed session,” said Francke, who has spent his life fighting for open government and the public's 1st Amendment rights to know what their officials are up to, and to speak out freely about those matters.

“If their egos are anything like public officials at more modest levels, they will likely refuse to do that. When officials are re-elected time after time for a generation, they are not going to worry about public reaction as much as an organization that has more turnaround in their elected leaders.

“Just like some corporations are too big to fail, certain political institutions are too big not to fail.”

Too big not to fail — isn't that the heart of the problem?

It's a matter of scale. It's why smaller cities are pretty well run and a big city like Los Angeles is a disaster. It's why the 10 million people in Los Angeles County get a government that is remote and imperious and inefficient.

RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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