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FRIDAY REPORT / An in-depth look at people and policies
shaping Southern California

Is More Better?

Backers of a larger county Board of Supervisors are trying again--with proposed items for state and local ballots. They say better representation would result. Foes see political motives.


They come from the East Coast, the Midwest and foreign lands near and far. Over the decades, the population of Los Angeles County has multiplied to nearly 10 million residents of every hue and political persuasion.

But as the population has exploded, one thing has not increased: the size of the county's five-member governing board. Each supervisor today represents a district with a population greater than those of 17 states.

Now a new proposal to expand the board and impose term limits is winning the support of a growing coalition of ethnic and civic leaders who say it may be the only way to inject new blood into one of the region's most static institutions.

State Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) is proposing, for the November ballot, a constitutional amendment that would require any county with more than 5 million residents to have a minimum of nine supervisors' seats. Other provisions of the bill would impose 12-year term limits and cut office budgets.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 20, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Population counts--A chart in Friday's Times inadvertently interchanged population figures for three Southern California counties. The correct figures: San Diego, 2,911,500; Orange, 2,828,400; Riverside, 1,522,900.

In reality, the measure would apply only to Los Angeles County, and supporters say it is intended to force a public vote on an issue that current supervisors have been reluctant to take up.

Critics of the supervisors say there are good reasons for them to avoid the issue. The position of supervisor has become so powerful and entrenched that anyone elected to it is almost guaranteed the job for life, they say.

One need only look at the example of the late Kenneth Hahn, who served 40 years before retiring in 1992. Current Supervisor Mike Antonovich joined the board in 1980 and has faced few serious challenges.

"It's almost impossible for anyone other than a billionaire or an incumbent to find enough cash to campaign effectively in a district that has such a huge electorate," said political analyst Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "I think Polanco correctly senses a swelling degree of frustration among L.A. County voters."

Some supporters of the current setup maintain that the politicians are more interested in their own options for future elected office. Others say the expansion measure is merely the latest slap in a long-fractious relationship between state legislators and the L.A. supervisors.

Goaded by the Polanco measure, the supervisors themselves may place a board-expansion initiative on the local ballot. And a separate group of political consultants and reformers is gathering signatures to qualify a local initiative that would limit supervisors to two terms of four years each.

'This Is the Smart Time to Expand'

If any of the measures passed, it would shake up a body that has changed little in the 150 years since Los Angeles County was founded. Polanco likes to point out that, back then, there was a five-member board and there were about 5,000 people in the county. Now it is the nation's largest county and has a population greater than those of 43 states.

"This is the smart time to expand the board," he said. "It makes perfect sense and allows local control. If [the measure is] approved by the voters, the Board of Supervisors themselves would simply use the 2000 census data to draw nine districts rather than five in 2001."

Polanco has said he will withdraw his legislation if the supervisors place their own measure on the local ballot. That is likely, observers say, but not certain. The county counsel has drafted an initiative, but officials have not said when it will come up for a vote.

Antonovich adamantly opposes expansion. "What you have is a couple of state politicians who want to create a supervisor seat for themselves," he said. "This does not result in cost-effective government or smaller government. No way can you freeze the staffs of supervisors, as has been suggested, because you need those policy deputies to oversee county departments."

He also said a smaller board is better able to reach quick consensus. He cited the 15-member Los Angeles City Council as an example of a "dysfunctional government."

Supervisor Don Knabe agreed that the board's size has little to do with public policy or how efficiently county departments are run. He said his constituents are not clamoring for expansion and noted that similar measures put before voters in past years have been soundly defeated. But he said he would still support placing the matter on the local ballot again.

"I believe in the right of the people to determine their own destiny in L.A County," he said, "and that people in Yolo County or Alameda County shouldn't determine what happens here."

Supporters See an Array of Benefits

Supervisor Gloria Molina, however, believes that a statewide measure might have a better shot at passing than a local one. And except for the term-limit provision, she supports the Polanco measure, said press deputy Miguel Santana.

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