Is our county sys­tem de­signed not to gov­ern?

Why is L.A. County, big­ger than the eighth-largest state, gov­erned by a board?

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Zev Yaroslavsky Zev Yaroslavsky served on the Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil from 1975 to 1994 and was amem­ber of the Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors from1994 to 2014. This ar­ti­cle was ex­cerpted from the Bol­lens-Reiss-Hoffenberg lec­ture re­cently deli

In1983, Bri­tain’s Queen El­iz­a­beth II and Prince Philip paid an of­fi­cial visit to Los An­ge­les. I was then a city coun­cil­man. At a re­cep­tion in their honor, I no­ticed the Duke of Ed­in­burgh stand­ing alone at the other end of the hall. So I walked over to him and in­tro­duced my­self. He was per­plexed by my ti­tle. “I’ve met the mayor, and I know who he is,” he said. “I’ve met the su­per­vi­sors, though I don’t knowwhat they su­per­vise. Now I’ve met you coun­cilors, and I don’t un­der­stand your sys­tem of gov­ern­ment.”

So I took a mo­ment to ex­plain the state-lo­cal gov­ern­ment re­la­tion­ship; the state and its 58 coun­ties; the thou­sands of cities within the coun­ties; the spe­cial dis­tricts, in­clud­ing flood con­trol, schools, mos­quito abate­ment and wa­ter, to men­tion just a few. To which the prince, peer­ing over his glasses, re­torted, “I now un­der­stand the ge­nius of your sys­tem — it’s de­signed not to gov­ern.”

For those of us who have served in Cal­i­for­nia lo­cal gov­ern­ment, no ob­ser­va­tion could be more per­cep­tive. Try­ing to sat­isfy con­sti­tu­tional and leg­isla­tive pre­scrip­tions in or­der to get any­thing done can be like nav­i­gat­ing a minefield. Decades-old laws and reg­u­la­tions need­lessly stand in the­way of progress.

Based on nearly 40 years of ex­pe­ri­ence as an elected of­fi­cial in Los An­ge­les, I’ve put to­gether a list of sug­ges­tions on how to im­prove gov­er­nance in the county and in the state of Cal­i­for­nia.

An ex­ec­u­tive, not a board

With a pop­u­la­tion of more than 10 mil­lion peo­ple and an an­nual bud­get of more than $27 bil­lion, Los An­ge­les is the largest county in the United States. If it were its own state, it­would be the eighth-largest — big­ger than North Carolina.

Yet we are con­strained by an old gov­ern­ing struc­ture pre­scribed by the Cal­i­for­nia Con­sti­tu­tion: a five-mem­ber Board of Su­per­vi­sors elected from ge­o­graphic dis­tricts equal in pop­u­la­tion. A five-headed ex­ec­u­tive is sim­ply not the most ef­fi­ca­cious way to gov­ern a county as big as ours. Can we imag­ine North Carolina dis­pens­ing with its gover­nor in fa­vor of a five-mem­ber board?

I be­lieve that Los An­ge­les County needs an elected ex­ec­u­tive who would be ac­count­able to the en­tire county, not just one fifth of it.

Such an ex­ec­u­tive would in­sti­tu­tion­ally speak for all of us in con­junc­tion with the Board of Su­per­vi­sors. He or she would help set the county’s fis­cal and pol­icy agen­das, hire and fire its depart­ment heads and run the na­tion’s largest county as the gover­nor of the eighth-largest state should do.

Achiev­ing such are form would re­quire the place­ment of a char­ter amend­ment on the county bal­lot and its ap­proval by a ma­jor­ity of the vot­ers. To get this done, the civic lead­er­ship and com­mu­nity stake­hold­ers must be con­vinced of the wis­dom of such a change, and they must take the lead in pro­mot­ing and spon­sor­ing sucha mea­sure. It can’t come from politi­cians, whose mo­tives would be in­stantly ques­tioned by vot­ers.

Let the ma­jor­ity rule

Another part of the sta­tus quo that cries out for change is the re­quire­ment that lo­cal taxes be ap­proved by a two-thirds vote.

In re­cent years, sev­eral bal­lot mea­sures were nar­rowly de­feated.

Mea­sure J, an ex­ten­sion of the 2008 transit tax, gar­nered 66.15% of the vote, fall­ing just15,000 votes short of the re­quired two-thirds. A bond mea­sure in 2002 that would have funded the seis­mic retro­fit of some of our most iconic cul­tural build­ings, in­clud­ing the Nat­u­ral History Mu­seum and the County Mu­seum of Art, fell less than 5 per­cent­age points short. And a mea­sure in 2014 to fund parks and recre­ation fa­cil­i­ties coun­ty­wide fell short by a sim­i­lar mar­gin, gar­ner­ing63% of the vote.

In most other states, a 63% ma­jor­ity would be con­sid­ered a land­slide vic­tory. Here it’s a los­ing cam­paign.

The no­tion that cru­cial public safety, recre­ation, cul­tural or transit in­vest­ments can be held hostage by 37% of the vot­ers is frus­trat­ing in the ex­treme.

A more achiev­able thres hold is in or­der. School bonds, for ex­am­ple, now re­quire 55% for ap­proval, and a sim­i­lar thresh­old should be con­sid­ered for mea­sures that would fund other vi­tal ser­vices.

Any change to the two-thirds re­quire­ment would ne­ces­si­tate an amend­ment to the state Con­sti­tu­tion. That’s not in­con­ceiv­able. The Leg­is­la­ture has been con­sid­er­ing plac­ing a pro­posal on the 2016 bal­lot that would do just that.

Cam­paign fi­nance re­form

The U.S. Supreme Court de­ci­sion in the Cit­i­zens United case, among oth­ers, has opened the spigot al­low­ing un­lim­ited spe­cial­in­ter­est money to flow into cam­paigns.

Pow­er­ful in­ter­ests can now spend vast sums to elect their pre­ferred can­di­dates through so­called in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture com­mit­tees, or I.E.s., while con­tri­bu­tions to can­di­dates’ con­trolled com­mit­tees re­main strictly lim­ited. This puts the citizen can­di­date at a dis­tinct disad­van­tage in his or her run for of­fice.

In lo­cal pol­i­tics, as in state and na­tional pol­i­tics, can­di­dates who are funded by these I.E.s have their mes­sage com­mu­ni­cated to the vot­ers via advertising, while those who are not so funded are drowned out.

More­over, when mil­lions of dol­lars in I.E.s are spent to elect a leg­is­la­tor, a county su­per­vi­sor, a mayor or city coun­cil mem­ber, politi­cians are ex­pected to re­turn the fa­vor, and far too of­ten they do. In­deed, the main ca­su­alty of these court de­ci­sions has been po­lit­i­cal in­de­pen­dence.

Nei­ther the Supreme Court nor Congress is likely to change course any­time soon. In the mean­time, some­thing needs tobe done.

Public fi­nanc­ing of cam­paigns, some­thing I didn’t al­ways em­brace, has clearly made a dif­fer­ence in Los An­ge­les city elec­tions. It has given can­di­dates who couldn’t self-fund, or couldn’t count on spe­cial in­ter­ests to fund an “in­de­pen­dent ex­pen­di­ture” cam­paign on their be­half, a chance to be heard. To broaden that op­por­tu­nity, lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions should in­sti­tute or ex­pand public fi­nanc­ing laws as much as their trea­suries will al­low.

How­ever, there aren’t enough funds in any city bud­get to com­pletely level the play­ing field against spe­cial-in­ter­est cam­paigns. In Los An­ge­les alone, it would take tens of mil­lions of dol­lars per elec­tion to ad­e­quately fund com­mu­nity can­di­dates.

So as long as Cit­i­zens United and its analogs are in force, fundrais­ing lim­its on can­di­date-con­trolled com­mit­tees should be lifted to give in­de­pen­dent­minded or com­mu­nity-based can­di­dates a cred­i­ble chance to win.

It is patently un­fair for a can­di­date to be strictly lim­ited in the amount he or she can raise froma sup­porter, while his op­po­nent can ben­e­fit from mas­sive, un­lim­ited ex­pen­di­tures on his or her be­half. A com­mu­nity-based can­di­date does not have to match the spend­ing of his bet­ter-funded op­po­nent dol­lar for dol­lar, but he needs to have a suf­fi­cient war chest to be heard in the elec­toral com­pe­ti­tion.

From a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive, there is a method to our state’s mad­ness. Like peo­ple, gov­ern­ments are the prod­uct of their en­vi­ron­ment.

Many of Cal­i­for­nia’s reg­u­la­tory bar­ri­ers stem from the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies, par­tic­u­larly the Hi­ram John­son re­forms of 1912. They were are ac­tion to the con­cen­tra­tion of power that gave cor­po­rate in­ter­ests un­due in­flu­ence over leg­is­la­tion and gov­ern­ment pol­icy. Com­part­men­tal­iz­ing or de­cen­tral­iz­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing was viewed as the surest way to pro­tect the state from a com­plete takeover by spe­cial in­ter­ests.

The world, how­ever, has changed since 1912. The struc­tures that once made gov­ern­ment more in­de­pen­dent now make it less so, and less able to con­front chal­lenges in a timely man­ner. Fun­da­men­tal re­forms are nec­es­sary to bring lo­cal gov­ern­ment into the 21st cen­tury.

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