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UNSUPERVISED

From CAO to CEO

Making L.A. County government more accountable is a contentious process -- and a crucial one.

March 18, 2007

LOS ANGELES COUNTY'S supervisors have long insisted on running everything themselves. Because there are five of them, they can feign ignorance or shirk blame or point fingers when something goes wrong, and they often do. Last week, however, the supervisors voted to give up some of their authority, a decision they will have to ratify this week. It's a small step forward, and they should take it -- and continue on a journey to make county government more accountable.

Earlier this year a majority of supervisors agreed in principle that the county's chief administrative officer, whom they appoint, should be a true executive -- able to hire, fire and hold accountable most of the 38 appointed department heads. These are the people who run massive agencies that oversee abused children, process welfare checks, deliver mental health services and provide a host of other needed services.

On Tuesday, the supervisors debated the issue in a lengthy and often snippy discussion that shows how difficult even incremental change can be. The debate was an exercise in hedging. Some supervisors wanted a sunset clause, an evaluation period, a fully developed plan before acting. Erase the rule against "interfering" in departments and perhaps make it a ban on "intruding." What they wanted, in other words, was the ability to make current Chief Administrative Officer David E. Janssen a more empowered executive but still revert to direct control over department heads if Janssen (already officially retired) is replaced by someone they don't know or trust quite as well.

Their spirits may be willing, but their political flesh is weak. They know they will be giving up a measure of control, and that's a move that runs counter to every bone in every politician's body. But the scale of the state's largest county is such that control, to be efficiently and effectively exercised, must be funneled more wisely. Just as a board of directors cannot effectively run a corporation without hiring a chief executive, and a large city council needs either a professional manager or a mayor, the Board of Supervisors needs a single executive in charge.

A county this size, in fact, needs an elected executive, the same way a state needs an elected governor. For now, though, the supervisors must ratify their cautious step forward with a second vote Tuesday. Then they should recommit themselves to putting the new system, with an empowered but appointed executive, before voters in June 2008.

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