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L.A.: Big County's Big Need to Change

January 04, 1987|Bill Boyarsky | Bill Boyarksy is The Times city-county bureau chief

When a new Los Angeles County chief administrative officer takes over in March, there will be little cause for celebration. The shift, instead, will be another sign of trouble afflicting the state's biggest county government.

Treasurer-Tax Collector Richard B. Dixon may yet do the best job possible of coordinating Los Angeles County's almost $7 billion in annual spending and the work of more than 75,000 employes. Dixon has climbed steadily through the county bureaucracy, starting as a court aide at age 21, showing a sharp eye for detail, an understanding of public finance and a recognition of the peculiar brand of politics played in the County Hall of Administration.

But he faces the same sometimes-impossible working conditions that led to the departure of his two most recent predecessors, James C. Hankla, who leaves March 1, and Harry L. Hufford. Both CAOs failed to carry out goals of reforming a cumbersome county bureaucracy, dominated by the five powerful elected members of the Board of Supervisors who too often do their supervising in a manner designed to protect and promote their own political careers.

The CAO receives $112,000 a year, hired by the same supervisors who can also fire the CAO any time three members of the board are unhappy.

The question of the quality of county administration touches millions of lives. This huge layer of local government affects anyone who ends up in court, calls the sheriff, uses a county hospital, spends a day at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hears the symphony at the county-run Music Center, applies for welfare, complains about the accuracy of a supermarket scale, fights traffic on the way to Sunday brunch at the county-owned Marina del Rey or relies on a county flood control channel for protection from heavy winter rains. The county is also a major force in the future of rich, undeveloped land in attractive places such as Malibu, the Santa Clarita Valley, the high desert around Palmdale and other unincorporated areas where county government has power over zoning.

Hankla, who will become Long Beach city manager, stayed on the job just two years before quitting. He said he had long been interested in becoming city manager of Long Beach, where as a top official he had supervised the redevelopment of downtown. But associates also said he was frustrated by failure to achieve his goals in the county and that he was attracted by a city manager's power over city bureaucracy. Hufford was CAO for a decade, including the tumultuous period of the conservative takeover of the board in the early 1980s. Although Hufford never complained publicly, friends said that he shared some of Hankla's frustrations and felt increasingly hindered by supervisorial interference. He quit to take charge of administrative and support services for the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Now, people wonder went wrong. Two respected public servants, each with different managerial styles, faced the same obstacles; top county managers, other officials and lobbyists are asking why.

In private conversations, experts blame an antiquated government structure controlled by supervisors who act as both legislators and executives, passing laws and trying to oversee the day-to-day operations of a government with responsibilities ranging from running hospitals to sponsoring cultural activities. A visit to board meetings often confirms that view. Supervisors, on the dais above Hankla and the other officials, exercise huge authority on the tiniest issues. A newspaper story may have revealed some transgression within a department. No matter how small the matter, a supervisor, aware of the television cameras, may flail away at the department head and CAO, demanding an immediate investigation.

Department heads wait in an adjoining room or in the audience for a dread summons to the dais. Some, enjoying friendly, first-name relationships with supervisors, get off easy; they can almost ignore the CAO. The chief administrative officer, theoretically analogous to a corporate chief executive officer, is, on some days, reduced to the status of a messenger, telling his skilled staff of government analysts to hurry up with a report to satisfy a supervisor. The analysts quickly begin their task, knowing the supervisor may forget about the whole thing if something new comes along.

Hankla, a tough administrator, arrived with a program that seemed perfect for members of the board's conservative majority--Deane Dana from the coastal area, Pete Schabarum from the San Gabriel Valley and new chairman Mike Antonovich, whose district stretches from Pasadena through the San Fernando Valley and into the high desert. Two other supervisors are liberals--Ed Edelman, whose district includes East and West Los Angeles, and Kenneth Hahn, representing an area from South Los Angeles through Inglewood.

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