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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

Supes take a bold step, but can you trust 'em?

February 08, 2007|Steve Lopez

Is that a fresh breeze blowing down from the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration, or just another species of rotten fish?

By appearances, the notoriously dysfunctional supervisors -- who have screwed up everything from King/Drew Medical Center to the juvenile justice system -- finally saw the light and decided to give more power to their chief administrator. But the process was even more secretive, suspicious and screwball than what usually transpires over on Temple Street.

To recap recent events, the supervisors have been searching for a successor to retiring Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen. Their first offer was to a county administrator in Minnesota, but she was smart enough to realize she'd be happier running an ice-fishing camp than having to answer to Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina, Zev Yaroslavsky, Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich.

Two other finalists asked to have their names scratched from the list. And who can blame them? With this board, meetings are like bad burlesque shows. They could only get worse if someone got naked.

Understandably, the supes were getting desperate, and more than a little embarrassed. Then came what seemed like a break.

I heard about it listening to KNX 1070 last week while stuck in traffic somewhere (speaking of which, don't miss the Times' traffic blog at latimes.com/bottleneck/).

Yaroslavsky was on the line, talking about this fabulous guy they'd just hired from Orange County by the name of Thomas Mauk. The supervisors couldn't believe how terrific he was -- a public servant who was born to be L.A. County CAO.

I wanted to call up and ask why, if Mauk was such a genius and worked in the next county, he hadn't made the initial list of finalists. But that wasn't necessary because Mauk didn't keep the job long enough for me to hear the KNX weather report.

He, too, must have gotten wind of how the supervisors treat the help, blaming department heads for their own incompetence. In any event, Mauk realized he was making the mistake of his life and decided things were just fine in Orange County.

Then, last Friday, an anonymous sender forwarded me and my colleague Charles Ornstein a copy of an e-mail sent by Yaroslavsky to other supervisors, in which Yaroslavsky outlined a plan for temporarily hiring back the about-to-retire Janssen and giving him increased powers.

On Tuesday, after The Times reported on the e-mail, Knabe sent out a news release outlining a proposal by him and Yaroslavsky to create a new chief executive position with greater authority than what Janssen had enjoyed previously.

The idea "has actually been under consideration for several months," Knabe said, with drafts and consultation with county lawyers, and a plan to put a county charter amendment on the ballot in June of 2008.

Oh, really?

If the supes have been giving serious consideration to a change -- that would affect every resident of Los Angeles County -- why hasn't the matter been discussed in public rather than, as usual, behind closed doors?

This development is a little surprising when you consider that although some supervisors have given lip service to the need for restructuring the disastrously inept current system, no single supe was willing to lead the charge.

Not to say it isn't a good idea to have one person hold the power to make decisions and be held accountable for them, instead of the ducking and finger-pointing we have now. I've recommended it in the past, but pardon me for being a little suspicious and asking the obvious question:

Why now?

A cynic might wonder if hiring back Janssen with powers more suitable to him had been the plan all along, or if this is the first stage in turning the newly created job into an elected position one day. That would give Yaroslavsky a shot at inheriting the kingdom and allow him to snub his nose at the likes of pipsqueaks like L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

My good buddy Antonovich certainly smelled a rat, saying his colleagues' maneuverings were part of a power grab, with Yaroslavsky angling to be county mayor.

Maybe, maybe not. But why suspect Yaroslavsky and not the others? Because he's the one with all the unfulfilled ambition, and his time is passing him by. He's also the smartest one of the bunch, but the distinction pales when you consider the competition.

The majority of his colleagues are not throwing off a lot of light, and the increasingly isolated Antonovich had to be making a cry for help when he dressed up his family in cowboy outfits for their Christmas photo last year. I say we give the old cowhand a wooden horse and let him ride off into the sunset.

Delusions seem to be an occupational hazard. For example, were you aware that this distinguished board and its executive officer could soon inherit a kingdom in the center of the glittering Grand Avenue project, of all places?

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