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Increasing Panel to 9 Would Redefine Local Government

Passage of Measure A would mean smaller districts and perhaps more minority representation. Critics say a larger board would be unnecessary and wasteful.


An initiative before Los Angeles County voters this week has the potential to scramble the local power structure and redefine what may be the most important branch of regional government.

The initiative is Measure A, which would boost the membership of the county Board of Supervisors from the current five to nine. It is backed by an unusual array of forces: good-government advocates, termed-out legislators eager for new positions, ethnic organizations hoping for more electoral diversity and union leaders hoping to expand their clout.

Proponents argue that the board, which controls the $15-billion county government and its hospitals, jails and health facilities for a region of nearly 10 million, is too small to adequately represent constituents.

Each supervisor represents nearly 2 million people, more than some state governors.

With districts of that size, electoral challenges are difficult. It has been 20 years since an elected incumbent supervisor was defeated at the polls. The three supervisors up for reelection last March ran unopposed.

"It's pretty ridiculous that 2 million people are represented by one person and that's called local government," said Arturo Vargas of the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials, which has endorsed Measure A.

Two county supervisors, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, have endorsed the measure. But the other three--Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe and Zev Yaroslavsky--oppose it, arguing that it is wasteful and that what they do is far from local government.

Citing supervisors' responsibility to administer social service programs such as welfare and health care, Yaroslavsky said, "It's very important that the broad perspective, not just the parochial perspective, be taken into account."

If approved, the initiative would nearly double the number of districts to be redrawn during redistricting next year. The new seats, advocates say, would probably lead to one supervisor to represent the Antelope Valley--a region currently subsumed into a district that stretches into the San Gabriel Valley--and provide opportunities for more Latinos and possibly an Asian American to sit on the board.

Expanding the Board of Supervisors has been a local good-government mantra for at least four decades. But the effort has been resoundingly defeated at the polls twice before, most recently in 1992, and voters are thought to be hostile to any effort to create more salaried officeholders.

But advocates say this year will be different. It has been so far.

Democratic state Sen. Richard Polanco, who has clashed with the board and will be termed out of office in 2002, got Measure A rolling. Polanco, a potential candidate for a new seat, threatened to place a constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot through the Legislature if supervisors did not place board expansion before county voters.

After dragging its feet for more than a year, the board placed the measure on the ballot last summer. The initiative the board wrote will cap the amount supervisors can spend on their office expenses at the level they will be in 2003.

The campaign for the measure was quiet until the final weeks before the election, when county unions poured money into a campaign coordinated by Polanco and other legislators to win approval.

Unions that clashed with supervisors during the transit strike and county strike this fall were very motivated to expand the board.

Because of the size of supervisors' districts, said Annelle Grajeda, general manager of the Service Employees International Union Local 660, which fought with the board in an October labor dispute, "there's just no accountability there."

Labor leaders also said they were angered by the way the supervisors handled a separate term limits proposal this summer. The county registrar-recorder, who reports to the board, said the initiative did not win enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. When a separate count revealed that it had sufficient signatures, supervisors did not put it on the ballot because it was past the deadline. A Superior Court judge upheld that decision.

Supervisors opposed to Measure A have attacked it as politically motivated and wasteful, stressing that Polanco and other legislators will be looking for work and that unions want more influence.

"In Los Angeles County we already have 1,000 politicians," said Antonovich, a 20-year veteran of the board who also opposed the prior efforts to expand the body. "Our problem is not a shortage of politicians."

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