The Los Angeles County supervisors used to be called the five little kings, a title that in fact underestimated their power.
That was more than a decade ago. Today, the Board of Supervisors is a shadow of its mighty predecessors. The perks remain and the salary is substantial--$94,344 a year, going up to $99,297 Jan. 1. But anyone in the county Hall of Administration will tell you that much of the supervisors' authority is gone.
It's important to understand that as you listen to the rhetoric beginning to emanate from the Jan. 22 special election campaign for the 1st District supervisorial seat. The district covers East Los Angeles and part of the San Gabriel Valley.
There are four candidates--State Sens. Charles Calderon of Whittier and Art Torres of Los Angeles, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina and Sarah Flores, former aide to retiring incumbent Pete Schabarum.
I'm sure they'll make a lot of promises. Purer water. No more toxic dumping. Improved county health care for the poor. Swift punishment for criminals.
But watch out for too many promises. Major changes in the nature of Los Angeles County government have drastically reduced supervisorial ability to keep pledges made so fervently on the campaign trail.
The biggest change was voter approval in 1978 of Proposition 13, which limited the property tax, then the main source of county revenue.
Before that, supervisors spent like mad. Every year, they'd plan construction projects for the next 12 months. Only after completing the list would they add up the cost. The final step in the budget process, believe it or not, was setting the property rate.
Monuments to the big spending days can be seen throughout the county. The county art museum, swimming pools, branch libraries, parks, the County Jail, hospitals, health clinics and broad highways were built when the supes didn't worry about paying the bills.
The lavish construction spending generated political patronage that flowed as steadily as the water in the fountain at the county Music Center. Building, architectural and engineering contracts went to friends and political supporters.
Such patronage built political machines. With their vast network of contractors, donors, friends, staff members and other associates, supervisors were big men when it came time to choose candidates for city councils, the state Legislature or even Congress. The supervisors could kill bills in Sacramento or get them passed. That era produced their present salary arrangement. They pushed through legislation tying their pay to that of superior court judges. When the judges get a raise, so do the supes.
The supervisors were generous to the unfortunate as well as to their political friends. The needy weren't forced to stand in line all day at county hospitals, as they are today, nor were the mentally ill turned away from county clinics.
That no-priority, anything-goes style budgeting soon was eating up so much property tax that the people rebelled. One of the rebels was Howard Jarvis, a loud-voiced, angry businessman who used to attend those free-spending supervisorial sessions. The supes dismissed him as a gadfly--or even a crazy. So Jarvis went out to the Los Angeles County suburbs, where property taxes were exploding, and began organizing homeowners. They were the first troops in his Proposition 13 crusade.
The second most-important loss of supervisorial power was in the area of regulating land use.
In the fast-growth '50s, '60s and '70s, the supervisors made multimillion-dollar zoning decisions for vast areas of land under county control--unincorporated territory, adding to their political clout.
Now, much of the county has been incorporated into cities, leaving the supervisors' with a much smaller role in shaping development.
The fact that county government has been stripped of these powers doesn't mean it will remain the same after the election.
The new supervisor, no matter who wins, will emerge as a political power. As one of the nation's highest-ranked Latino elected officials, the winner will be an automatic force in Hispanic politics, a star on the political banquet circuit.
A new supervisor will change the dynamics of the board. Democrats Calderon, Molina and Torres are more liberal than Schabarum. Even former Schabarum aide Flores, a Republican, doesn't share her former boss' hostility to health and welfare spending.
But don't look for much more.
The Proposition 13 limit on property tax revenues made counties dependent on a deficit-ridden state government for the money needed for those health and welfare programs. The five little kings are now supplicants, and there's little hope of getting much help.