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County dinosaur

L.A. County's outdated structure has made it nearly ungovernable. To do better, it must be radically reshaped.

February 25, 2007

THE NATION'S LARGEST local government is broken, but few Angelenos seem to have noticed. That's because the county's government is virtually invisible to most of its 10 million residents, providing services mostly to the unwanted or unseen members of society: jail inmates, abused children, welfare recipients.

Besides, not noticing government is the birthright of every Californian. We pay our taxes, if they're not unreasonably high, and serve on juries when summoned; sometimes even vote. But otherwise, we're not especially captivated by state and local politics.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that. Despite the occasional scolding by civic groups and even newspaper editorials, Californians' attitude toward government is neither a cultural failing nor a tragic flaw. It's simply the way the people of the Golden State approach the subject. Let government run quietly. When it fails, as it periodically does, voters take action with an initiative or a recall. Just don't expect to see any populist campaigns for more politicians or new layers of bureaucracy, even if they are needed.

Such benign neglect has its consequences. Few people notice when government begins to gum up. Only later, further down the line -- when there is an acute budget crisis and services must be slashed, or when people die needlessly, as has been the case in recent years in Los Angeles County jails and hospitals -- is there an outcry and reaction. But after years of inattention to government, voters sometimes misread the problem and end up exacerbating it.

The response to Los Angeles County's troubles over the last decade has been typical: Limit the supervisors' terms. Redraw district lines. Curb discretion over how taxpayer money is spent. But these reactions just nibble around the edges of the county's inherently daunting task.

A much more radical rethinking is in order.

The county, a subdivision of state government, is enormous. L.A. County arrests more suspects, jails more criminals, hospitalizes more patients, removes more children from their homes, reunites more children with their families, taxes more property and distributes more aid than any other county and most states. In the jails, the sheriff runs one of the largest food-service operations in the nation, and cares for more mentally ill people than most public agencies that are set up and funded for that purpose.

Virtually any county program is similar in scope: Beach patrol. Fire protection. Tax assessment. Criminal prosecution. Criminal defense.

It used to be that voters could change course with relative ease by putting in new people at the top. In 1950, when Los Angeles County had 4.1 million residents divided among five districts, a candidate waging a relatively inexpensive campaign with a message that resonated among the district's several hundred thousand voters could overthrow a sitting supervisor.

That's still the way it works in other California counties. In a place like, say, Tulare County, a candidate can still go door-to-door to reach voters.

But today, Los Angeles County, with its five supervisors each representing 2 million people, has become nearly ungovernable with its outdated structure. The one thing supervisors excel at is repelling challengers to their seats. The last time an incumbent was voted out of office, astonishingly, was in 1980, when Mike Antonovich defeated Baxter Ward. So whose fault is it today when patients are mistreated at the former King/Drew Medical Center and voters refuse to hold their supervisor accountable? Is it the voters' fault? Or is there something wrong with the structure?

Consider the dysfunctional relationship between the county and city of Los Angeles, whose budget is a third the size of the county's. A city program to crack down on gang crime means that the county supervisors and sheriff will have to find more room in the jails, more money for prosecutors, more funding for deputy public defenders, more space in the probation system. A ward of the county's juvenile hall system will run a gantlet of potentially worthy services: mental health, foster care, education -- but all of it provided by different agencies, funded by different budgets, headed by leaders not answerable to the same single executive. The opportunities for waste, suspicion and failure are endless.

The county government -- at least the design of its leadership structure -- remains moored to the pretense that its mission is simply to act as an outpost of the state. Hence, there are only five supervisors exercising quasi-executive, quasi-legislative authority. There is no one really in charge, exercising full executive authority.

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