THE elected officials who lead Los Angeles County preside over the world's 17th-largest economy, bigger than those of Switzerland and Taiwan, with a population larger than that of Michigan and 41 other states and a network of governmental services almost Dickensian in its cruelty and disorder. Imagine you are imprisoned in the county jail and are asked to testify against a murder defendant, and promised protection when you return to your cell. Instead, the defendant is allowed to roam free for hours, until he finds and strangles you. That happened two years ago, on the current sheriff's watch, and the victim was just one of 10 inmates in recent years to meet his death at the hands of another inmate.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 25, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 12 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Endorsements: An editorial Monday referred to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's practice of awarding badges to political supporters. They received departmental ID cards, but not badges.
Some jails are so crowded and tensions so high that convicts doing time and accused criminals awaiting trial must be separated by race. Even so, deadly riots break out regularly. Meanwhile, other empty jails across the county gather dust as elected leaders claim there is no money to staff them.
Or imagine you visit the county hospital for some nagging but minor ailment and you end up badly injured or killed because of medical errors or neglect. This could have happened in the last decade at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, and it is not clear King/Drew will ever fully recover from its reputation as a chamber of horrors. Wait times in public hospital emergency rooms are intolerable, and the county's health system is perpetually near collapse.
The people we trust to run these institutions often make things worse by deferring to each other and by hypocritically adopting an attitude of righteous indignation while publicly lambasting the people running day-to-day operations. And every even-numbered year, we return these same elected officials to office to carry on the job. Why?
It could be that no one better decides to run against them. But that just begs the question: Why not? The easy answer is that it's just too expensive. There is more to this malaise than the cost of a campaign, however. The county is poorly run, and few people try to help run it because nobody is in charge. The county is large enough that we must be able to put an executive in charge and then hold that person accountable when things go wrong.
Voters have rejected the idea of an elected executive before, and we are continuing to suffer the consequences. Until we replace our cow-county-style government with one built for a megalopolis of the 21st century, voters have little choice but to acknowledge that their incumbents, working sometimes grudgingly together from the comfort of their safe seats, have kept the place together better than any of the current crop of challengers could.
On June 6, residents of two districts will decide whether to reelect their supervisors, and voters countywide will decide whether to reelect the sheriff and the assessor. The Times makes the following endorsements, unenthusiastically.
Assessor: Rick Auerbach, the current assessor, values each of the county's approximately 2 1/2 million pieces of property to make sure they are taxed properly. He has more constituents than the governor of Massachusetts, but few know who he is or what he does. Fortunately, he does his job well and is opposed only by John Lower Taxes Loew, who legally changed his name to Lower Taxes before challenging Auerbach in 2002. Auerbach should be allowed to continue his work, although it may well be that his office should be appointed, not elected.
Sheriff: Lee Baca is alternately exasperating and impressive. Currently, exasperation rules the day.
Baca blames insufficient funding from the state and from the Board of Supervisors for the deadly problems in the jails and his inability to recruit deputies. But he has been a spotty manager, at best, of his budget. When his focus should be trained on properly housing inmates and patrolling the streets, he has pushed his office into expansion mode, making a play for contracts to police the MTA and community colleges. His office patrols Compton, and his decision to concentrate officers there brought an end to a string of gang shootings. But the move came later than it should have, and he cannot keep his "extra" deputies there forever. His most recent scandal involves his handing out badges to political supporters, cheapening the value of a sheriff's badge and potentially confusing or endangering the public.
Baca exhibits a discomfiting combination of humility and megalomania. Yet voters looking hopefully among the challengers for an alternative will find only veteran law enforcement professionals who are ready to lead a small city police force. None are prepared to lead a department the size of the county's.