Dan Walters

Opinion: Amendment takes baby step to reform county governance

Counties are the odd ducks of California governance, acting both as suppliers of local services such as fire protection and garbage collection, and as managers of state health and welfare programs.

They are also geographic oddities, ranging from San Francisco’s densely populated 46.9 square miles to San Bernardino’s 20,105 square miles, much of it unpopulated desert.

During California’s first half-century of statehood, in the late 19th century, it often formed new counties in response to population growth and shifts. But we haven’t changed a county boundary since 1907, when Imperial County became the 58th by breaking away from San Diego.

Were we ever to rationally restructure California’s governance, we would recast counties’ bifurcated functions, which create many conflicts, and adjust their boundaries to meet 21st-century realities. Some smaller ones might be merged while some larger ones, such as Los Angeles, might be broken up.

That day may never come, but we could at least do something about the archaic way in which our counties are governed.

Except for San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, all counties are governed by five-member boards of supervisors. That’s true of Alpine County, which has just 1,121 residents, and Los Angeles County, which has more than 10 million.

Newly introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 8 would, if approved by the Legislature and voters, enlarge the boards of five Southern California counties with populations over 2 million to seven seats after the 2020 census.

The change would coincide with the post-census redistricting process and allow plenty of time for adjustment.

“The time has come for California to modernize the boards of supervisors of its largest counties so that there is greater representation for its residents,” said Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, who introduced the measure.

It’s clearly aimed at accommodating Los Angeles’ huge and growing Latino population and cooling off a looming ethnic and ideological power struggle. Adding two seats could increase Latino representation on the board from one to three.

Interestingly, SCA 8 has a Republican co-author, Sen. Sharon Runner of Lancaster. Expanding Los Angeles’ board to seven would probably guarantee it would continue to have at least one Republican member despite the county’s lopsided Democratic tilt.

Republicans now dominate boards of the other four counties – San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino – and probably would gain at least one of the two seats added to each board. But expansion also would open some new opportunities for Latinos, who now hold just one of the 20 board seats in those four counties.

SCA 8 is a very minor adjustment in large county governance that would relieve some of their internal tensions. But if enacted, it might be a step toward the more fundamental reform that counties need.