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Supervisors' Quiet Power: an Anomaly in Government

February 10, 1988|YVONNE BRATHWAITE BURKE | Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, a Los Angeles attorney, served by appointment to the Board of Supervisors from 1979 to 1980.

Before long-time Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn decided to seek another term this week, there had been much speculation that other established elected officials would be vying for the post of supervisor in the 2nd District.

In recent years we've seen two former California Assembly members forsake their Sacramento jobs to run for, and win, positions on the Los Angeles City Council. And when many expressed interest in Hahn's office, some may have wondered why a member of Congress with prime committee assignments and seniority, a leader of the state Assembly, a state senator and countless others would think about giving up their powerful political positions to run for a local office?

Many people consider local government at the bottom of the hierarchy of power, unless you're referring to a mayor of a major city. The truth is that few, if any, offices in California carry the quiet power that is enjoyed by a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, leading some cynics to refer to the board as "Five Little Kings."

In California, county government controls the tax base, welfare, health-care delivery and the court system. Contrast the direct effect that a county supervisor can have to the diffused power of a state or federal legislator. As a former California legislator and congresswoman, I understand the frustrations that are often felt by legislators who see years of hard work fall at the hands of a veto by the executive branch, whether it is the governor or the President. The deliberate and painstaking pace of legislation passing through the House of Representatives and Senate caused Rep. Pat Schroeder to compare the process to watching Jell-O mold.

There is little wonder that the possibility of passing an ordinance by just being able to get three of the five supervisors to agree (which is not always that easy) is sufficient to entice legislators away from Washington or Sacramento. Embitterment from the constant battle with the other legislative house and an executive branch that does not always understand the same priorities or needs of your district gives one cause to seriously consider running for supervisor.

Of course, what we are really discussing is lawmaking free of the traditional checks and balances. The county Board of Supervisors is two and sometimes three branches of government all in one.

Supervisors, because they represent districts of more than 1.5 million residents, are insulated from some of the usual drawbacks of local government. Kenneth Hahn is probably the last supervisor who at one time attended regularly every church in his district and was a familiar sight at any community gathering where more than 10 people discussed a problem.

Because of the size of the district, supervisors are often forced to communicate with their constituents by newsletters and through articles in local newspapers. The supervisor's deputy, who operates the district office, is often the one on the front lines with the constituents.

Many people are unfamiliar with what the board does, in part because supervisors meet less often than the Los Angeles City Council does and because supervisors are not often embroiled in the types of issues that cause public uproar.

A regular group of "board watchers" who attend every meeting of the supervisors are given a chance to gripe in public sessions, but for the most part the board's activities stir up little public furor. Because supervisors exercise executive as well as legislative power, they not only pass ordinances that govern unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County but also serve as administrators and executives over county departments.

For example, the state provides a block of funds for street construction and improvement. Each supervisor by custom can designate where the money will go as long as state guidelines are met. Mental-health programs that receive state funds are allocated by the supervisors within their districts. The board administers the programs of county departments. Although there is a director of each department, the supervisors have line authority, and actively participate in decision-making.

The supervisors also have a direct effect on many small and medium-sized cities that have agreements with the larger county for the county to provide sheriff's, fire and even planning services.

One of the most positive aspects of the board's power is its ability to react quickly to solve a problem in a crisis--if the members are so inclined.

So in 1988 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors remains an anomaly in government, but a very enticing office for the energetic officeholder looking for the right place to serve.

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