For 21 years she toiled at the County Administration Building, virtually unknown to the general public. But Los Angeles County might not have turned out the same without her.
As head of the agency governing incorporations, Ruth Benell has acted as midwife to the birth of a dozen cities, including Agoura Hills, Lancaster, Santa Clarita and Calabasas. Critics say she was a reluctant midwife, one who tried to stifle home-rule efforts.
Her admirers say she deftly balanced the interests of a pro-development Board of Supervisors against residents trying to gain control over land-use in their communities. By any measure, she was a lightning rod for the disgruntled on all sides.
And now, Benell, the executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, is leaving.
"It's just time," said the 70-year-old Benell from her Rowland Heights home. Benell had been one of the original commissioners of LAFCO in 1963, when she sat on the Pico Rivera City Council, and joined the agency's staff in 1969 before taking its helm in 1972.
Benell plans to retire at the end of the year, and LAFCO's seven-member board--made up of elected local officials as well as citizens at-large--this month chose Orange County LAFCO Executive Officer James Colangelo to take her place.
Some attribute her longevity to an ability to stamp out potential political brush fires by effectively communicating with all sides--even if her message was not always welcomed.
When asked to assess her LAFCO tenure, Benell acknowledges taking the most pride in just "being able to stay" at the agency, which has come under fire from developers and homeowners alike.
"She had an excellent political acumen in anticipating problems and sitting down with people and saying, 'This is going to work and this is not going to work,' " said Jim Van Horn, a LAFCO commissioner and Artesia city councilman.
LAFCO approves or amends the incorporations of cities, with the commissioners basing their decisions largely upon Benell's recommendations on the fiscal health and appropriate size for each municipality.
The Los Angeles LAFCO is a state agency that receives legal advice from county counsel and is based in the County Administration Building. Two of the county's seven commissioners, who approve or reject annexations and incorporations and at whose pleasure the executive officer serves, are county supervisors.
Among Benell's duties was estimating whether a new city would collect enough taxes to provide basic services. She also helped draw boundary lines, sometimes shrinking the territory of proposed cities.
Santa Clarita's size was slashed from a requested 90 square miles to about 40 when it incorporated in 1987, and two efforts to secure a valleywide sphere of influence four times larger have failed. A sphere encompasses territory expected to be annexed to a city and, arguably, allows a city with stricter development standards to inhibit extensive development in that area.
Through the years, Benell justified her conservative estimates of a potential city's revenue-generating capacity, saying new cities don't always take advantage of opportunities that older, more experienced cities do.
The lengthy and tiring incorporation experiences of Calabasas and Santa Clarita led former state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita) to write legislation to reform incorporation procedures through the Los Angeles LAFCO.
"Ruth Benell is the executive officer who is there to carry out the county's policies," Davis said. "And the policy has been to screw anyone that wants to incorporate."
Davis cites Malibu residents' attempt to incorporate, which succeeded in 1991, but only after Davis carried a bill through the state Legislature with the specific intent of making the area a city. Residents, with the desire to control land-use and the development of a controversial sewer system, had voted overwhelmingly to incorporate, but cityhood was held up by county supervisors.
"One after another of the cities that I served got the shaft from LAFCO," Davis said. "Ruth Benell is just the servant of some pretty nasty masters."
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, however, defended what he said was Benell's adherence to the law.
"The law specifically provides rights to property owners and the community," Antonovich said. "If they don't like the law, it's not Ruth Benell's fault.
"New cities have to be based upon economic vitality and the desires and wishes of the people who live in the area," said Antonovich, a LAFCO member in the early 1980s. "LAFCO protects majority and minority rights."
Many who have sparred with Benell praise her skill in walking the tightrope between the interests of the county and those of the communities that wanted to incorporate.