Jerry, realigned

We must love government in California, we have so much of it.

The state's legislative and administrative apparatus has a parallel (and often shadowy) collection of at least 150 appointed boards, commissions, councils, and authorities. Some merely advise, but many make rules and enforce them, for everything from naturopathic practitioners to elementary school teachers.

There are 58 counties in California, all of them created by the state, and each of them having its own collection of appointed boards and commissions, many with administrative powers.

California has 478 cities. Some are charter cities; some are "general law" cities. The differences between the two types is slight, but enough to allow for the reviled Bell and the semi-feudal Vernon. They, too, have commissions and boards, and some of these make binding rulings.

There are at least another 3,000 units of government in the form of special districts. More than 2,200 of these stand alone as independent entities, each governed by its own elected board and providing services that range from drinking water to burial plots. And hardly anyone knows anything about them.

Governor Brown's draft 2011-2012 budget proposes to realign this stew of governments . . . but only a little . . . and only where the state clearly has sovereignty, which makes the governor's bold statements about realigning responsibilities and "local government" so misleading.

"Local" means "county" almost exclusively when the governor speaks of devolving responsibilities once shouldered by the state. On the other hand, "local" means "municipal" when the governor is talking about sending stateward some of the revenue that flows to city governments.

The League of California Cities doesn't think much of the governor's alignment of local revenues: "Just a mere two months ago, California voters picked their way through a crowded ballot and approved Prop. 22 by 61 percent, a measure designed to protect various local revenues -- including redevelopment -- from state raids. The voters' position on this issue was no surprise because repeatedly they have voted to protect local revenue from the state -- take for example Proposition 1A of 2004, which passed by more than 80 percent. Moreover, poll after poll demonstrates that voters view their local governments as much more accountable and trustworthy than the state."

And Bill Boyarsky, an astute and hardened observer of city and state government at LA Observed, doesn't think much of the redevelopment the League defends: "The most famous example of a phony redevelopment deal was in the City of Industry. The city annexed huge amounts of largely rural land, declared it blighted and made it a "redevelopment area." Hotels, warehouses, office buildings and a possible National Football League stadium are the beneficiaries. The losers are the impoverished school districts around Industry, deprived of property tax revenue that is being used to pay off the bonds. In L.A., Hollywood was declared blighted, and developers there benefited from huge undeserved redevelopment subsidies. The fact is, Hollywood, being on a subway line, would have redeveloped by itself."

Neither the League nor the governor has said anything about a broader realignment of governments in California that would encourage greater accountability and efficiency, particularly among the thousands of special districts.

As long ago as 1997, the state's watchdog Little Hoover Commission found that most special district governing board members ran virtually unopposed in sleepy election contests. Offices were just as often uncontested, and elections cancelled or board members appointed by county supervisors to fill a vacancy.

California's patchwork of special governments has become unnecessarily redundant and inefficient, and those who lead them are too often unaccountable. In the absence of a healthy ballot-box review of district policies and without state-mandated fiscal controls, some districts have become rich, complacent, and possibly corrupt.

And no one is talking about realigning them.

The image on this page was adapted from a photograph taken by flickr user Thomas Hawk. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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