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Our County Needs More Supervisors

October 12, 1986|ALEXANDER H. POPE | Alexander H. Pope is the Los Angeles County assessor.

The lawsuit to require greater Latino representation on the Los Angeles City Council has raised again the question of whether we have enough elected officials serving our ever-increasing population.

As one of only three countywide elected officials, representing more than 8 million people, I well understand the diminishing possibility for any single individual to respond to all constituent concerns.

From time to time, proposals have been made to expand the City Council. This certainly would be a step in the right direction now, allowing the council to address the issue of Latino representation without the messy reapportionment battles the members have been fighting.

However, the need for greater representation is much more acute at the next level up--county government.

The present membership of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors consists of five white males. Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities, not to mention the female majority of our citizens, have no board membership.

Unlike the three elected countywide officials (assessor, district attorney and sheriff) who are each charged with a single task, the supervisors have broad responsibility for the health and welfare of all county residents, in addition to providing city-type services, such as libraries, for unincorporated areas and contract cities. They direct more than 40 departments and have an annual budget of $6.4 billion; only eight states have larger budgets.

Counties were established to provide local self-government. When it was founded in 1850 with a population of 3,530, Los Angeles County had three supervisors--or one for every 1,177 people. In 1852 the Legislature increased the board's membership to five supervisors. By 1920, each of those supervisors served 187,000 residents--approximately the size of Los Angeles City Council districts today.

Now, more than 130 years after the number of supervisors was raised to five, the ratio is one supervisor for every 1.6 million residents. It stretches the imagination to describe this ratio of representation as a form of "local government."

Growth in any institution is generally met with a corresponding growth in the need for leaders. In a democracy, our government leaders should be elected. But the county, operating under the constraints of a century-old charter, has added bureaucrats instead.

To get around this lack of elected representatives, proposals have been made to subdivide Los Angeles County into smaller counties, each with their own five-member boards of supervisors. However, this idea runs counter to the fact that certain services are delivered in a more efficient and less costly manner if done so on a large scale.

Thus the best solution might be, as Supervisor Ed Edelman has suggested, the consolidation of the Board of Supervisors with the Los Angeles City Council. San Francisco has long had such a combination.

Here in Los Angeles, the 15-member council could be combined with the five-member board, plus one new member to break ties, to produce a 21-member Board of Supervisors. This proposal would also give the county an accountable, elected chief executive--a city/county mayor. Significant economies in service would result as would greater coordination of planning and services--such as transportation. The greatest gain, though, would be increased representation for all county residents.

Due to the vested interests of those currently in office, it is unlikely that the proposals for smaller counties or for a consolidated city-county board will be placed before the voters. Yet a lawsuit, or simply the concerted demands for Asian, black and Latino representation on the Board of Supervisors, could move the board to put on the ballot a proposal to increase the number of supervisors to seven or nine. A not-unreasonable requirement that no district have over 1 million residents would result in a nine-member board.

For years, the courts have enforced the one-person, one-vote rule and mandated that redistricting does not unfairly deprive minority groups of representation. We do not have, however, a mechanism similar to reapportionment to correct the political gridlock resulting from population growth.

But the voters can do it through a citizens' initiative campaign.

Then instead of cutting up the pie differently, as the City Council is doing now under prodding by a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit, we could demand that the number of elected officials be expanded to serve our enlarged population, minority and otherwise. In drawing up a list of where to begin that expansion, the Board of Supervisors should be on top.

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