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Fiefdoms Under Fire

June 12, 1988

Los Angeles County has 8.4 million residents, more than the population of 42 American states, but the county attempts to run its complex affairs with the same form of government as Alpine County and its 2,000 residents. It is a system that may have been fine for Los Angeles County in 1912, when it was adopted, or for an isolated mountain county. But it is not adequate in a megalopolis containing 85 cities and 285 special districts, and in which change is racing across the landscape. The reorganization of Los Angeles County government is overdue.

The present county system is a throwback to frontier times, or to the principalities of 19th-Century Europe. All of Los Angeles County is divided into five parts, and each part in effect is ruled by one of the five members of the County Board of Supervisors, each supreme in his own district. Five supervisors. Five fiefdoms, each with more than 1.5 million residents. The five supervisors not only serve as the county's legislature, they also sit as the county's executive and administrative overseer of the court system.

There are no executive-vs.-legislative checks and balances. There is no central point of executive authority. There is no adequate representation of the people. And there is no incentive for efficient government. It is time for dramatic change.

The county's services are incredibly diverse and important--including fire and police protection, health services, welfare, zoning and land-use planning. Los Angeles County runs six hospitals and 42 health centers, operates the nation's largest criminal-justice system and election agency, manages about 100 parks and 10 beaches, and administers the Music Center and the museums of Art and Natural History.

The timing of reform is appropriate because change most likely will be forced on the county in any event. The U.S. Justice Department has warned the Board of Supervisors that the board has denied Los Angeles County Latinos proper representation through the current apportionment of its five districts. Unless the board redraws the district lines, the Justice Department most likely will file suit to force the county to do so.

A simple redrafting of the five existing districts, however, would not change the basic fact that a five-member board that attempts to serve as both executive and legislative branches at the same time cannot adequately represent 8.4 million people. The county needs an independent executive branch and an expanded Board of Supervisors so that all areas of the county and all segments of the population are adequately represented.

A starting point for study would be the reform measure that was put to voters in 1974 proposing an elected county executive and a nine-member board serving as the county legislature. The proposal lost largely over the phony issue of increased administrative costs. It would be difficult to create a more costly system than the present one. It encourages each supervisor to get every possible public-works project or facility in his district. And if one supervisor gets something, everyone else wants one for his district. It is almost impossibleto build one of anything in Los Angeles County, regardless of need.

Major savings also would be achieved through the greater efficiency of an executive system in which department heads clearly are responsible to a single chief with the power to hire and fire. The executive would have to justify his budget to the legislative body. Department heads could not manipulate supervisors by playing one off against another.

Other major counties in the United States--and smaller ones, too--have shifted to the executive-council system in recent years and found it to be both more effective and more economical. Given the changing role of local government in California in recent years, other approaches should be examined as well. These would include the consolidation of Los Angeles city and county governments or the concept of regional government. But Los Angeles County residents should no longer have to suffer under the present inefficient and archaic regime of balkanized principalities.

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