Dan Walters

California’s 58 counties need governance reform

A street vendor greets an acquaintance in front a market in East Los Angeles, an area of unincorporated Los Angeles County, in 2012. Local activists say the county’s Board of Supervisors treats the neighborhood poorly but their efforts to make it into its own city have been frustrated.
A street vendor greets an acquaintance in front a market in East Los Angeles, an area of unincorporated Los Angeles County, in 2012. Local activists say the county’s Board of Supervisors treats the neighborhood poorly but their efforts to make it into its own city have been frustrated. Associated Press file

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg puts it succinctly, albeit accurately: “58 counties in California are accidents of history.”

Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, uttered his comment last month during a pithy, if sparsely attended, legislative hearing into the shortcomings of county governments.

As California’s population expanded in the late 19th century, it was divided, and redivided into 58 counties, then the state’s fundamental local governments.

The counties’ populations now range from 1,200 in Alpine County to over 10 million in Los Angeles – more than all but seven states – and except for the city and county of San Francisco, all have five-member boards of supervisors.

Counties also evolved from purely local governments into, primarily, agents of state and federal governments in dispensing health and welfare services and the conflicts between those two roles are one aspect of their shortcomings.

County supervisors’ constituents are mostly interested in local services such as roads, sheriff’s patrols and fire protection, but mandates of state and federal overseers take precedence.

Having five-member boards without an elected administrator is another impediment. Zev Yaroslavsky, a retired Los Angeles supervisor, said that getting a majority board vote on even routine executive issues creates “less precise decisions,” and big issues can take years to resolve.

“When everyone’s in charge, no one is in charge,” said retired Los Angeles County administrator David Janssen.

“It’s the worst form of government, unless you are one of the five,” Yaroslavsky said. Likening counties to the Soviet Union, he added, “Our system is ultimately going to collapse of its own dead weight.”

Although the hearing was supposedly about all counties, the focus was largely on Los Angeles and intermittent efforts to change its governing structure by enlarging the board and creating an elected executive office.

Ironically, three days after the hearing, it was revealed that Los Angeles supervisors had launched a corruption investigation of former administrator William Fujioka.

There are some steps that could improve all county governments, such as simplifying relations with the state. But Los Angeles and other big counties need a deeper overhaul – larger boards for broader representation and elected executives for accountability.

An elected executive in Los Angeles would be the state’s second or third most important politician and an immediate contender for governor.

The representational issue is particularly acute in Los Angeles, which has increasingly sharp ethnic competition for board seats. The board has just one Latino member now, even though Latinos are, by far, the county’s largest ethnic group.

“Something’s going to happen,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León warned. “Things have to change.”

There is, however, another option – abolishing counties altogether, substituting expanded city governments for local services, and leaving all-consuming health and welfare services to multipurpose regional governments or the state itself.

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