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A Guide for the Politically Perplexed in L.A. County

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Every so often, I get a call from a journalist working on a story that needs some local government context. In the welter of communities, cities, county agencies, and special districts that blanket the political landscape of Los Angeles, it's easy to mistake who does what and even why.

Some calls start from a basic misunderstanding of political geography. So, what are we talking about when we describe places as incorporated, unincorporated, "contract city," or "county territory?"

To begin with, the city of Los Angeles is not the same political entity as the county of Los Angeles. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is not the mayor of all the cities in Los Angeles County (much to his relief).

On the other hand, County Supervisor Mike Antonovich has been pleased to call himself the Mayor of the County of Los Angeles whenever he's rotated into the leadership of the County Board of Supervisors. But there is no "mayor" of the county with authority over cities (to Mike's dismay, I think).

The county of Los Angeles isn't the political master of the county's 88 incorporated cities. But the county -- through the Board of Supervisors -- is the provider of city-type services to the one million residents who live in the county's unincorporated areas. For them, local government is overseen by the soon-to-retire William Fujioka, the county's Chief Executive Officer.

Sometimes called "county territory" to distinguish these non-city communities from incorporated cities, the unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County are governed directly by the five-member Board of Supervisors. Unincorporated areas are scattered all over the county, mostly as islands among the incorporated cities.

Termed-out Supervisor Gloria Molina has the greatest concentration of non-city voters in her district. (Maybe she should have been the mayor of the county.)

The larger communities that are "county territory" include Agoura (but not Agoura Hills), Altadena, East Los Angeles, East Whittier, Rowland Heights, Topanga Canyon, Universal City, Willowbrook, Wrightwood, Marina del Rey, Montrose, and Pearblossom.

Residents in some unincorporated county areas are fiercely protective of the lifestyle that county rule allows. They don't want cityhood. Activist residents in unincorporated East Los Angeles, on the other hand, have sought cityhood over and over, but never succeeded in incorporating.

The last effort failed in 2012 when the county agency that approves the formation of new cities told East Los Angeles residents that their proposed city wouldn't generate sufficient revenue to pay for municipal services. (Only specialists know that the Local Agency Formation Commission of Los Angeles County -- whose members are mostly elected officials of other local governments -- has that kind of authority.)

Getting past the city/county mix up of names is easy. Envisioning non-cites with familiar names as islands among incorporated cities is harder. When a news report is bylined Marina Del Rey, no reporter footnotes its non-city status.

But there's more. About half of the 88 cities in the county contract for law enforcement services from the County of Los Angeles. Their "police department" is Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD).

The Los Angeles Police Department isn't the LASD. They're separate -- in the past, rival -- law enforcement agencies.

Los Angeles County cities that get their local law enforcement through the LASD are often called "contract cities." These cities have significant control over the amount and kind of law enforcement services they get from the LASD. Contracting doesn't make Cerritos or Compton or Santa Clarita a "phantom city," as critics in the 1950s claimed.

Contract cities also purchase other municipal-type services from the county -- from animal control to building inspection to a city prosecutor.

But contract cities don't contract for fire protection and paramedic services. That's because all but about 20 of the 88 cities in the county receive those services from the Los Angeles County Fire Department through the Los Angeles County Fire Protection District.

In fact, the question that led to this civics essay was a reporter's confusion over what Cerritos contracts from the county (law enforcement) what is provided by the county through the fire protection district (fire suppresion and paramedics).

Contract cities like Cerritos pay for law enforcement from their general fund, and city councils manage the scope of these services through negotiation with the office of the County Sheriff. Property owners in cities that are members of the fire protection district pay for fire and paramedic services through a property tax assessment. The Board of Supervisors oversees the fire protection district as well as the County Fire Department that provides the services.

The County Sheriff is an elected position that voters countywide select. The County Fire Chief is appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

Bewildered? Reporters often are. Non-contract cities -- sometimes called "independent cities" -- in Los Angeles County have their own police department but often don't have a fire department. Contract cities don't have their own law enforcement and fire services. They contract directly with the county for former and receive the latter through membership in the fire protection district.

And every city -- indeed, every level of local government in California -- contracts with some other political entity for something. The distinction between contract and independent city is growing less sharp.

Some features of local government are shared by both. All contract cities and independent cities have an elected city council. They make locally enforceable laws. They decide policy questions from perspectives that vary from city to city. What's legal in one -- safe-and-sane fireworks, for example -- may be illegal in another.

The cities in the county don't have anything to do with schools and school districts (despite former Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa's ambitions). School districts are separate units of government, as are the dozens of special districts in Los Angeles Country that pump water, treat sewage, and bury the dead, among other things.

But really, that's enough civics for now.

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