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Changing Up the Supes and Reshaping L.A.

The vaguely Soviet-style county Hall of Administration has neither the boomtown presumption of Los Angeles City Hall or the modernist class of the L.A. Department of Water and Power further up Bunker Hill. The Hall of Administration looks even dowdier next to the jazzy flow of Grand Park on one side and the vermillion heft of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles on the other.

The Hall of Administration speaks -- not at all loudly -- to the durability of the county's bureaucratic machinery. But time and term limits have thrown a wrench into its many gears. County chief executive officer William Fujioka retired at the end of November, his permanent replacement not yet chosen. Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky ended their final term on Monday, replaced by Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl who won district elections in November.

What had been an all Anglo, all male, and largely Republican Board of Supervisors until Molina's election in 1991 is more diverse and more firmly Democratic today than any time in its history. It will likely be more so. In 2016, two more supervisors will be termed out: moderate Republican Don Knabe and the more combative Mike Antonovich.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, the fifth supervisor, is likely to stay in office until he is termed out in 2020. By then, court challenges may have forced the county to redraw district boundaries and add two or more supervisorial districts for constituencies that have historically been shut out. Given the demographics of the county, any new districts will probably be contested by Latino candidates. Asian and African American communities are likely to push back with their own electoral grievances.

A bigger board might make the county system more transparent and better able to evaluate its operations through an oversight committee structure. More board members might also bring the board closer to the communities its members serve, but more districts might end up as escalators to elected office for Hall of Administration insiders.

Yaroslavsky
Yaroslavsky | Photo by Neon Tommy Creative Commons License

Monday's newly constituted board, with three of five members solidly backed by union support, will change the tone of county government. But it's not clear what will change in the way the county does its many jobs.

The reason is partly structural.

The offices of Assessor, Sheriff, and District Attorney are elected countywide and are unburdened by term limits. Although part of the county system, those offices -- particularly the Sheriff -- stand apart as independent hubs of power. Simple political calculation tends to shield those offices from direct supervisorial oversight.

That lack led Assessor Noguez into a criminal indictment in 2012 and Sheriff Baca into the wreck of his law enforcement career in 2013.

Newly elected Assessor Jeffrey Prang was sworn in on Monday, as was Sheriff Jim McDonnell, the first sheriff not to rise through the department ranks in nearly a century. Those sheriffs won elected office backed by a career's worth of loyalties among the department's chiefs and assistant sheriffs; McDonnell hasn't. Both Prang and McDonnell promised voters that they were committed to reform the ways their departments have worked. Their predecessors made those same promises.

Behind the mask of Monday's collegiality, power relationships in the Hall of Administration are more fluid than they have ever been, but I expect them to fall into a pattern that leaves county government organizationally divided and timid about structural change.

The board's inability to find a replacement for Fujioka's CEO position -- or even to decide the future scope of that position -- is a bad sign. As the Los Angeles Times noted recently, "Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich want to ... scale back the powers Fujioka had. The current system has created 'bureaucratic distance' that makes it difficult for supervisors to effectively assess the performance of department heads, Antonovich said. Ridley-Thomas -- who has a tense relationship with Fujioka -- said too much power has been vested in the chief executive's office. Both supervisors want to return to the previous system, under which department heads reported to the elected board."

Molina
Molina | Photo by Metro Creative Commons License

New board members on Tuesday joined with Ridley-Thomas and Antonovich to rescind the decision taken by the old board to appoint Brence Culp as an interim CEO. While this may seem like a smart move - Culp expressed interest is getting the job permanently - the implication is that a board majority may not want the kind of county executive Fujioka hoped to be.

Applicants for the CEO position will be wary about taking a job that is the cause of that much conflict over what the CEO is supposed to manage. A divided board -- worse, a board that wants the CEO's job for itself -- won't give its senior administrator the latitude to act on issues that prey on the effectiveness and transparency of the county organization.

It's an old saying in local government that all a city manager or a county executive needs to know is how to count to three to stay employed. The new county CEO may be lucky to get just two solid votes for appointment, leaving skeptical supervisors to fume or plot until the magic number of three is reached.

The next CEO has the instructive example of Supervisor Yaroslavsky, who famously expressed his dislike of a system run by a five-member collective but who carefully guarded his authority in his own district. Yaroslavsky, at various times, wanted an elected county CEO, then an appointed executive with greater authority over department heads, and then voted to curtail CEO Fujioka's authority over some county departments.

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is one of the most powerful governments in the nation, but paradoxically, not powerful enough. The board should have the power to appoint the assessor and sheriff and to fire them when necessary. (The district attorney -- with both judicial and administrative functions -- is best left an elective office.)

And the board should resist assuming power it doesn't need. CEO Fujioka should be replaced by an administrator with full authority to hire and fire county department heads and negotiate county employee contracts subject to board member approval. Experience in county government would be a plus, but a new CEO without a lot of baggage would be a better choice for change.

Change has come to county government. More will arrive in 2016. County residents -- and the cities that contract with the county for municipal services -- wonder if it's the right change or enough.

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