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Better Government by Contract

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Dr. Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University, sees change coming to California's cities and counties, with counties becoming the most important provider of municipal services. Dr. Smoller believes that the adoption of a county-based system of service provision would be a dramatic change. He calls it "a turning point for local government."

It was.

It happened almost 58 years ago. And it did save money and improve services for millions of residents in more than 40 cities in Los Angeles County and many more throughout California.

When Lakewood incorporated in 1954, it became the first "city by contract," and Los Angeles County began a mostly successful transition from a caretaker government to one of the largest and most diverse contractors of municipal-type services in the nation.

When Lakewood City Hall opened for business in 1954, almost all services -- from dog catching to crime busting -- were provided by the county under contracts negotiated by the five-member Lakewood City Council. Fire protection, libraries, and sewers were (and still are) provided through county-wide special districts. (Contracts today account for about 43 percent of the city's budget.)

An early inspiration for Lakewood's "contract city" model of service provision was Nassau County on Long Island, which began providing municipal-type services to communities in the 1930s. Dr. Smoller highlighted the story of Nassau County in looking at why Orange County cities are turning to county government to receive services.

But he needn't go "back East" for news of what works -- and doesn't -- when cities contract for service.

(The Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College reflected on California contract cities in a recent paper, emphasizing the flexibility of contracting but also noting that contracting is a poor fit in some situations. The website of the California Contract Cities Association has additional perspectives.)

In fact, all cities contract with other agencies and private enterprise for services these days. But about one-quarter of California's 480 cities contract with county government for such basic municipal services as law enforcement and fire protection, making them a distinct class of "contract cities."

It's a lively, innovative, and sometimes rambunctious class, notable for experimenting with new forms of contracting, either to restrain costs or to take advantage of new services that would be impossible for a small city to undertake alone.

Cities in California contract with counties, with each other, special districts, non-profit organizations, joint-powers authorities, and increasingly with private enterprise. They change contractors (although infrequently, in most cases), assemble consortiums to contract for them, and occasionally take a contract service in-house.

These cities have the capacity to assemble a mix of services and providers because city councils make these decisions based on local conditions. They can pick the private company they want to collect their trash (with all the ethical risk that entails.) They can tell the county to take a hike if the supervisors hike the cost of a service. They can be nimble, ad hoc, and creative, and be voted out by angry residents when they make a mess of things.

But Dr. Smoller -- like many in the state legislature -- would abandon that part of contracting in favor of a highly centralized county government that would be responsible for providing all municipal-type services. In place of the checks and balances inherent in the ability of city councils to change contractors, Smoller offers a model that shifts city services to county agencies under the direction of a new and greatly enlarged county legislature (a model popular in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand since the 1980s).

Instead of five county supervisors, Orange County might have as many as 31, Dr. Smoller estimates. (The regional administrative councils that replaced traditional city councils in Australia and New Zealand sometimes have more than a dozen elected members.) The county legislature would determine service levels, negotiate contracts, and define community values, not city councils.

It would be unfortunate if Orange County became another New Zealand (where cities were forcibly "amalgamated" into regional units by the central government). Los Angeles County provides a better and more instructive history of restraining local government costs while retaining the authentic localism that communities long for.

Contracting's hybrid form -- at once both local and regional -- was a good idea in 1954. It's even a better idea today.

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.

The image on this page in in the public domain.

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