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Wanted: one boss

L.A. County's splintered lines of authority deter candidates for the job of chief administrative officer.

January 31, 2007

IT'S ONE THING to apply to become Los Angeles County's chief administrative officer, get the offer and then turn it down, as Sandra L. Vargas of Hennepin County, Minn., did earlier this month. It's another thing entirely to accept the job, as did Thomas G. Mauk (Orange County's chief executive), then decide after all the announcements were made and congratulations offered that maybe it was the wrong move.

It could be that Mauk, who accepted the job Monday only to back out Tuesday, heard one too many snickers or got one too many phone calls from sympathetic acquaintances who said: "Good luck with that. You're going to need it."

Whatever his reasons, the job Mauk is passing up may be one of the more thankless government posts in the nation. To the five elected Los Angeles County supervisors seeking a replacement for the departing David Janssen, we can only say: Good luck with that. You're going to need it.

Los Angeles County is notorious for its overcrowded jails, unbelievably large caseloads of foster children and overburdened public hospitals. The county has a $21-billion budget, a payroll of 100,000 employees and a population of more than 10 million. It employs a chief administrative officer, but what it may really need is a governor.

Janssen did a credible job because of his powers of persuasion. Unlike in San Diego County, which he once ran, Los Angeles County's chief administrative officer has no power to hire or fire department managers, who take their marching orders from the Board of Supervisors. The board in turn can act only collectively, one day a week for a few hours on Tuesday mornings when the supervisors meet. But, in fact, each supervisor issues "requests" if not directives.

So who's in charge? Everyone. Which means, of course, no one. No single person is accountable for exerting executive authority in L.A. County.

These five supervisors -- Mike Antonovich, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, Don Knabe, Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky -- have been together long enough and have weathered enough crises to know their limitations. They should know that no one can succeed at this job without some actual authority. The supervisors should back off from trying to run the county on a daily basis and grant their next chief, if they ever get one, real power to hire and fire managers and, in fact, run the county.

It's a basic first step, one that cities such as Burbank already employ. But it may not be enough. Yaroslavsky has called for an elected executive -- a person with the independence and authority to be truly accountable. Voters have rejected this before, but he is right to raise it again. He knows, in an intimate way, that L.A. County is an exceedingly difficult place to run by committee.

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