Dan Walters

Bill addresses local government corruption in Los Angeles County

The Los Angeles River runs along the city of Vernon, which – along with neighboring Bell – was recently engulfed in corruption.
The Los Angeles River runs along the city of Vernon, which – along with neighboring Bell – was recently engulfed in corruption. Los Angeles Times

The first season of the “True Detective” television series won well-deserved praise for its complex plot, moody, Louisiana-based locale, and fine acting.

The second season’s drama, set in California, was qualitatively inferior but intriguing, nonetheless, for fictionally connecting well-documented corruption in the small Southern California city of Vernon (which it called “Vinci”) and the state’s elaborate plans for a north-south bullet train.

If nothing else, “True Detective” introduced other Americans to the peculiar form that corruption takes in the smaller local governments of Southern California.

Typically, those with a crooked bent seize control of the government and then use its powers to enrich themselves through big salaries and expense accounts, elaborate pension plans, payoffs from trash haulers and other municipal contracts. And they often get away with it because with so many small entities, no one pays much attention.

Vernon became a poster child for the syndrome, as did Bell, the subject of an intensive investigation by the Los Angeles Times, and officials of both wound up in jail.

But they are not the only examples, as Chris Reed, a writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune helpfully chronicled in a recent online article, likening Los Angeles to such notorious bastions of corruption as Louisiana and New Jersey.

“The latest example came last week when Luis Aguinaga resigned as mayor of South El Monte after admitting to taking bribes for seven years from a contractor paid by the city for engineering and construction services,” Reed wrote in the Aug. 17 article.

While the local government corruption in Los Angeles County has drawn the occasional attention of federal and local prosecutors, there have been only fitful efforts by the state’s politicians to deal with it.

One of the many examples Reed cites is the Central Basin Municipal Water District, formed in 1952 to provide water to retail suppliers.

Somehow, it became a magnet that attracted shady politicians, several of whom got themselves elected to the district’s board, and began lining the pockets of themselves and other insiders.

Last year, state Auditor Elaine Howle released a report on the water district’s operational shortcomings and mismanagement. Among other things, the report recommended that the district’s governance structure be overhauled to make it more accountable.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, a persistent critic of the local corruption that permeates Los Angeles County, took Howle’s recommendation seriously.

She introduced legislation, now sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, to enlarge the board to seven members, four elected and three appointed by other governments getting its water, and eventually to eight members, and impose some ethical standards on its operations.

This is not the petty power-grabbing that marks much of the legislation dealing with local government. It is, rather, reform to substitute accountability for insider dealing. And it shouldn’t stop with the Central Basin Municipal Water District.