Joe Gonsalves: Legend of L.A.'s Suburbs

Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, left, swears in Joe Gonsalves in 1960, accompanied by his family.
| Photo: Courtesy of the Gonsalves family

Lakewood celebrated its 60th year of cityhood last Friday. And as the city has done at each of its milestone anniversaries since 2004, the city named new "Legends of Lakewood" to remember those who made the city possible.

Among those honored last week is a man you probably haven't heard of, but he affected the lives of millions of Los Angeles County residents. He died in 2000. His name is Joe Gonsalves.

The son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores and a successful dairyman, Gonsalves was thrust into the politics of municipal incorporation in the late 1950s. Southeast Los Angeles County, which was still a semi-rural borderland between Long Beach and Los Angeles, was in rapid suburban transition.

When the city of Dairy Valley incorporated in 1956, it was to protect Gonsalves' dairymen neighbors and their 10,000 cows from suburban encroachment. Gonsalves, despite his reluctance to run, was among the new city's first council members and later mayor of Dairy Valley.

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But Dairy Valley didn't last as a farming enclave. By 1963, homes were replacing feedlots. Dairy Valley renamed itself Cerritos in 1967.

By then, Gonsalves was one of the most effective members of the state Assembly, having been elected to a new district in 1962. Gonsalves came to the state Legislature when California could do almost anything, fueled by defense spending, home building, and waves of immigrants from a colder, drabber America. It was the era of Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh and Governor Pat Brown.

Those boom years created cities. By 1970, Cerritos, Lakewood, and 30 more had changed pastures and orchards in Los Angeles County into neighborhoods and communities by contracting with the county for all or most of their municipal services. Sheriff's law enforcement was (and is) the big ticket item for contract cities.

The pricing formula for these services was adjusted to account for the overhead costs of the county employees and facilities that contract cities used. But non-contract cities objected, arguing that the formula should recover even more of the county's general overhead.

Assemblyman Gonsalves, who had heard all the arguments for and against contracting when he was a city council member, authored legislation in 1972 to end the controversy and give legislative authority for a pricing formula that accounted for the overhead costs that contract cities were obligated to pay.

The next steps weren't easy. Los Angeles and other non-contract cities lobbied against the pricing formula. Gonsalves' first bill was vetoed. A second (and nearly identical) bill was sitting on Governor Ronald Reagan's desk the following year with every indication that it would get a veto, too.

As Joe's son Anthony Gonsalves tells the story, one day the governor's legislative aide called Joe Gonsalves.

My dad was ... authoring Governor Reagan's major education bill. And it was the day before the hearing (on his bill). My dad heard from the legislative director of the Governor, and he said, "So we're ready to go in the morning." My dad said, "No we're not. I want to know if the Governor is going to sign my contract cities bill." And the legislative director ... said, "Are you kidding." My dad says, "No. I'm actually dead serious." And the legislative director said, "Where are you gonna be at five o'clock?" My dad just said, "Waiting for your call in my office."

So at five o'clock, the legislative director calls my dad and says, "The Governor told me to tell you he will sign your bill." And that's how the contract cities legislation got signed.

There were many hurdles ahead in working out overhead costs with Los Angels County. How much of the County Counsel's time was actually devoted to contract service matters? Did the work require the time of one County Counsel or more? How about the Auditor's office? How much time was devoted to contract cities by the county's chief administrator?

There were hundreds of these details, all of them to be negotiated by skeptical cities and wary county officials. Eventually overhead costs were equitably settled. And cities that contracted with the county finally could foresee their actual contract costs when they planned each year's new budget.

Joe Gonsalves went on to a long and successful career as a Sacramento lobbyist. Among his favorite clients were contract cities that he'd helped as a legislator.

Cost accounting and budgeting aren't legendary stuff of, but an exception can be made for Joe Gonsalves, whose persistence and political savvy make him a Legend of Lakewood ... and of all contract cities.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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