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L.A. County Board of Supervisors: 5 jobs politicians especially covet

Los Angeles County's supervisors enjoy an unusual level of power, with little oversight. But new term limits could change things.

September 06, 2013|By Seema Mehta
  • Clockwise from top left are Los Angeles County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Michael D. Antonovich, Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Don Knabe.
Clockwise from top left are Los Angeles County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky,… (Los Angeles Times )

A prominent Latina fresh from President Obama's Cabinet wants one. A member of the Kennedy clan is eyeing another, as is the woman who made her political mark this year behind a multimillion-dollar media blitz to become Los Angeles' first female mayor.

Seats on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors are among the most coveted, safe and powerful local elected positions in the nation. The five current members have served a total of nearly 100 years, bolstering criticism that the board has been short on accountability.

But shifts not seen in more than a generation are coming. Four of the "five kings," as board members sometimes are called, will be gone by the end of 2016 because of voter-imposed term limits. And for the first time since the board was created in 1852, the majority of members could be women in three years.

The turnover, starting with elections in June, will change the makeup of a panel whose decisions can affect millions of the poor and needy dependent on a wide range of county social services, as well as taxpayers, businesses and organized labor, which hopes to increase its clout through the coming political campaigns.

At weekly downtown meetings in a cavernous chamber, the supervisors make decisions on law enforcement, healthcare delivery, food safety regulation, taxes and land development that can affect a population larger than that of all but seven states. They spend $25 billion a year in public money, often with little oversight.

"There's really no checks and balances," said Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), whose father served on the panel for four decades and whose family name adorns the county's giant Hall of Administration where the board convenes. "They create laws, they execute laws and sometimes they even sit in judgment of their own laws."

The benefits are considerable. Each supervisor is allotted $3 million a year for staff, cars, office expenses and pet projects, on top of a $179,000 annual salary.

The public and the media pay less attention to the board than to City Hall leaders two blocks away in the Civic Center, partly because of the dizzyingly complex array of state and federally mandated social programs that officials spend much of their time managing.

Politically, that opacity can be attractive. "You can have a tremendous amount of influence and not run into the buzz saw people run into in more visible offices like City Council or mayor," said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

The board's obscurity has prompted one former state lawmaker who is seeking a seat to send out "L.A. County 101" emails, explaining members' duties.

"Everywhere I go, when I tell people I'm running for Los Angeles County Supervisor in 2014, they ask, 'What do supervisors do?'" wrote Sheila Kuehl in her first missive to voters. One recent explainer reeled off a litany of statistics to illustrate the breadth of county responsibilities, including the 16 million books checked out of county libraries, 60,000 marriage licenses issued and 70 million visitors to county beaches annually.

Some contend that the relationship between board members and the 2 million residents each represents needs to be fundamentally reset.

"There's a disconnect — that's why I refer to them as kings and queens," said former state Sen. Gloria Romero. "They are in an obscure, hard-to-get-to building in downtown Los Angeles where you have to pay an arm and a leg to park before you walk in and bow down to the majesties that prevail.

"They are invisible to their subjects."

Supervisors say they are in constant contact with cities, community groups and constituents despite the sprawling size of their districts and added responsibilities, including overseeing the county's mass transit system. Board Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas said he regularly meets with constituents at organized events and less formally in settings such as Sunday church services. He added that board members have larger staffs than other local elected officials to deal with constituent issues.

Board members wrestle with issues affecting society's most vulnerable — the destitute, the sick, abused children, the mentally ill, said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles City Council member.

"In the city, few if any decisions we made were life-and-death decisions — trim trees now or trim trees in three years," he said. At the county, he added, "I have had many a sleepless night, literally and figuratively, on some of the decisions we've had to make over the years."

Through the decades, entrenched county supervisors have rarely faced serious political challenges. That was partly the argument for term limits approved by voters in 2002.

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