How many su­per­vi­sors?

A bill to ex­pand the county board to seven mem­bers from five might only ex­pand the dys­func­tion.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY OPINION - Hen he

Wwas a Los An­ge­les County su­per­vi­sor, Zev Yaroslavsky had a quip about county gov­ern­ment that his suc­ces­sor, Sheila Kuehl, likes to quote: A county of 10 mil­lion peo­ple run by a five-mem­ber Board of Su­per­vi­sors is ab­surd. Un­less you’re one of the five.

The point is that one su­per­vi­sor with ju­ris­dic­tion over 2 mil­lion peo­ple and a fifth of a $27-bil­lion bud­get has a lot of power. Who, once he or she gets that kind of clout, would will­ingly give any of it up?

Cal­i­for­nia’s de­fault form of county gov­ern­ment was de­signed in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury and may well have been work­able, or at least pass­able, when Los An­ge­les County was pop­u­lated mostly by cows, a hand­ful of va­que­ros and some tran­sients whose luck ran out in the gold fields up north. It may suf­fice even to­day in coun­ties such as Siskiyou, with 45,000 or so res­i­dents.

In Los An­ge­les County though, Yaroslavsky was right: A five-mem­ber Board of Su­per­vi­sors — with no sep­a­ra­tion be­tween ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive func­tions, few checks and bal­ances and a pop­u­la­tion big­ger than most states— is ab­surd.

It is a form of gov­ern­ment that would have given Mon­tesquieu, Madi­son and all the other demo­cratic the­o­rists and con­sti­tu­tional framers fits. It di­min­ishes the voices and vot­ing power of in­di­vid­ual res­i­dents. It pro­vides for in­ad­e­quate over­sight of public spend­ing and public ser­vices. It con­founds peo­ple who just want to know — who’s in charge here?

It’s cer­tainly true that a gov­ern­ing body with fewer peo­ple stands a bet­ter chance of get­ting things done than a big­ger one. But it also stands a bet­ter chance, if no one has the power to say “no,” of mak­ing costly mis­takes.

Demo­cratic state Sen. Tony Men­doza of Arte­sia has in­tro­duced a bill to ask Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers to ex­pand boards of su­per­vi­sors in coun­ties of 2 mil­lion or more peo­ple to at least seven su­per­vi­sors. (It would cur­rently ap­ply to L.A., San Diego, Or­ange, San Bernardino and River­side coun­ties.) L.A. County’s su­per­vi­sors will take an ad­vi­sory po­si­tion on the bill Tues­day and are likely to turn thumbs down. More on that in a bit.

First, though, it’s im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that a ma­jor­ity of the pre­vi­ous board re­luc­tantly agreed with Yaroslavsky in 2007 that re­gard­less of the num­ber of su­per­vi­sors, Los An­ge­les County needed a stronger ex­ec­u­tive. Not a fully em­pow­ered elected of­fi­cial, like an in­de­pen­dently elected mayor, but merely an in­di­vid­ual like a city manager who was re­spon­si­ble for run­ning the county on a day-to-day ba­sis, leav­ing the Board of Su­per­vi­sors to fo­cus on pol­icy and over­sight. On pa­per, it was a more ra­tio­nal sys­tem, com­pa­ra­ble to the gov­er­nance model in San Diego and other large coun­ties, not to men­tion many small and medium-sized coun­ties as well.

Itwas an in­terim step, to be fol­lowed by a coun­ty­wide vote rat­i­fy­ing the new sys­tem and mak­ing it a per­ma­nent part of the gov­ern­ment’s struc­ture. Wil­liam T Fu­jioka, a for­mer county hos­pi­tal of­fi­cial who also had been the chief ad­min­is­tra­tor of the city of L.A., got the job.

It worked im­per­fectly. It may be that the su­per­vi­sors were too un­will­ing to sur­ren­der power. It may be that they were un­able to change their method of op­er­at­ing, mov­ing from mi­cro­man­age­ment or public hu­mil­i­a­tion of depart­ment di­rec­tors — some­thing at which Su­per­vi­sor Glo­ria Molina spe­cial­ized — to big­ger-pic­ture pol­i­cy­mak­ing and over­sight. It may be that Fu­jioka was sim­ply the wrong fit for the job. For what­ever rea­son, the su­per­vi­sors never moved past the in­terim phase to­ward more ra­tio­nal and re­spon­si­ble gov­ern­ment.

The new board, in­stead of fi­nally com­plet­ing that step for­ward, is in­stead tak­ing a big step in the other di­rec­tion. In Fe­bru­ary, with Fu­jioka, Yaroslavsky and Molina gone, the su­per­vi­sors moved to re­peal the 2007 or­di­nance and called for rec­om­men­da­tions that would delete “un­nec­es­sary lay­ers of man­age­ment.”

The rec­om­men­da­tions have not yet come up for a vote, but drafts cir­cu­lat­ing around the Hall of Ad­min­is­tra­tion lay out a re­turn to the old ways, with a five-headed, some­times-bickering ex­ec­u­tive at­tempt­ing to di­rect the af­fairs of some 40 de­part­ments.

It’s cause for con­cern. To its credit, the new board has sought cre­ative work­arounds that get de­part­ments to work to­gether more seam­lessly. But it still needs some­one with clout, con­fi­dence and pol­icy ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially at bud­get time, to say “no.” It needs some­one to tell the big five when they are spend­ing too much or think­ing too lit­tle. But elected of­fi­cials with the power that county su­per­vi­sors have aren’t likely to share that power with an ex­ec­u­tive or with any­one else ab­sent a cri­sis — or un­less vot­ers force them to.

So should vot­ers force them to? That brings us back to the Men­doza mea­sure to ex­pand the board to at least seven. Pro­po­nents as­sert that such a re­con­fig­ured board would be far more rep­re­sen­ta­tive, and it might; but it would still leave Los An­ge­les County with dis­tricts of 1.4 mil­lion peo­ple and, this time, a seven-headed body with few checks or bal­ances. With­out a strong ex­ec­u­tive, that sounds more like away of en­larg­ing the dys­func­tion than cor­rect­ing it.

Men­doza says he also sup­ports an in­de­pen­dently elected ex­ec­u­tive, and that his mea­sure might be seen as just the first of sev­eral steps to­ward bet­ter county gov­ern­ment. Per­haps. Or ex­pan­sion with­out an in­de­pen­dent ex­ec­u­tive may turn out just like the term lim­its that fi­nally kicked in last year: Good for shuf­fling the deck, not so good for im­prov­ing the game.

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