The Los Angeles Times does a mediocre job reporting on county government, something more than one senior executive of the Times has told me over the years. The paper's coverage of the conflict over drawing new district boundaries for the five-member Board of Supervisors illustrates the problem.
The conflict - which redistricting map should the board adopt - has been reported from inside the Hall of Administration as a kind of three-way cage match between Supervisors Molina, Ridely-Thomas, and Knabe. Supervisor Yaroslavsky has been tagged in from time to time, largely in support of Knabe's position. Supervisor Antonovich is sitting out this fight.
The Times has given readers a close-up view of the supervisors' political behavior - rhetorical muscle flexing over their competing maps and smack downs on the meaning of the federal Voting Rights Act. But as told by the Times, the story doesn't seem particularly relevant to the nearly nine million of us who live in the county.
When Times' columnist Steve Lopez went looking for man-in-the-street perspectives in Huntington Park and Tarzana the other day, he predictably found no one interested in the redistricting fight. No one he questioned further could even name the supervisor who represents either community.
Lopez's questions weren't particularly unfair, but he might have broadened his sample to include residents in one of the 40 cities (out of 88) in Los Angeles County that depend on a range of municipal services provided - under contract - by county workers.
For all of these cities, the biggest contract is law enforcement through the Sheriff's Department. But in most of these cities, the county also fixes traffic signals, repairs potholes, inspects new construction, issues building permits, and performs other services that make up the everyday business of local government. Cities contract for these services from various county agencies, all of which report to the Board of Supervisors. The supervisors determine budgets, set policies, and approve contracts.
(Even more cities depend on the county Fire Protection District to supply paramedics and fire protection, also managed by the Board of Supervisors. In fact, supervisors participate in setting policies for most countywide agencies, from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.)
Huntington Park isn't a "contract city" and Tarzana is a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Neither community depends on the county in the way Cerritos, Norwalk, Malibu, Santa Clarita, West Hollywood, or other "contract cities" do. The Board of Supervisors isn't an abstraction for them or the nearly two million residents of the county's other "contract cities." The character of the supervisor who represents their community may actually mean more to them than who their mayor is.
What goes unnoticed by the Times - or is judged beneath notice - sometimes gets a lot of notice outside the borders of downtown, the Valley, and the Westside. The political map that will reshape power on the Board of Supervisors isn't political theater for the rest of the county. It's the shape of things to come.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.