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L.A.'s new CEO

The Board of Supervisors appears ready to cede some power to a single executive. It's a start, but not enough.

February 11, 2007

THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY Board of Supervisors last week inched toward an important reform, even if it was acting more out of desperation than enlightenment. The elected leaders of the nation's largest local government agreed to consider relinquishing some of their day-to-day authority and instead empower a chief executive to truly run the county.

It may sound like an insiders' game -- a shuffling of administrative boxes on an organizational chart, far removed from the daily tragedies of homelessness, gang crime, child neglect and the other heartbreaks at the core of this county government's mission and failure. So the supervisors may give up their power to hire and fire department heads and instead allow a chief executive to do it. They may even agree never to interfere with the executive's decisions. So what?

Yet this would be an important and positive move for the 10 million people who live in the county's 88 cities and various unincorporated areas. Transferring power to an executive is much more than a policy wonk's daydream. The organization and management of the county are inextricably linked to the quality of life here.

A board with five supervisors, elected by citizens living in a patchwork of sleepy small towns and ranches, may have been able to handle L.A. County in the 1850s, or even in the 1950s. But now the county is a virtual nation with the population of Greece or Hungary, administered by a collection of leviathan agencies, any one of which would dwarf many state governments. No single supervisor can be held responsible for anything, so no single person can be held accountable for failure. Trying to run this county with its current form of government is like trying to swerve among the big rigs on the 710 Freeway in a horse and buggy.

An empowered chief executive would leave the county with the same government that runs most of the state's smaller cities: five elected representatives and a hired city manager. It's better than the status quo. But a broader reinvention is also needed.

Los Angeles County voters have previously rejected an elected county executive, perhaps out of fear of a powerful new political figure whose clout in California would be second only to the governor. But there is more reason to fear a government in which no one has power, and in which bureaucrats, labor unions, department managers and elected officials check each other's ability to get anything done.

In the coming weeks, this page will explore the depth of the mess the county is in, how it got there and possible ways to fix it. We will make our case for a range of reforms, including -- but not limited to -- an elected county executive.

For now, we urge the Board of Supervisors to approve the plan put forward by Supervisors Don Knabe and Zev Yaroslavsky to empower their appointed executive. It's a good start.

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