Dan Walters

Los Angeles’ politicians use Capitol power to affect local issues

Early morning hikers walk along a path at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Los Angeles on Aug. 12. Southern California is having its smoggiest summer in nearly a decade and hospitals report an increase of people with breathing problems.
Early morning hikers walk along a path at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Los Angeles on Aug. 12. Southern California is having its smoggiest summer in nearly a decade and hospitals report an increase of people with breathing problems. The Associated Press

Los Angeles County contains more than a quarter of the state’s population. So naturally, it wields a big stick in the Legislature, including both of its top leadership positions.

While that clout obviously gives Los Angeles politicians a big say on what happens on statewide issues, it also empowers them to micromanage what happens on local issues, and they’ve not been shy about using that power.

No legislative session is complete without some effort by Los Angeles legislators to intervene in a local matter, often big-footing those on lower rungs of the political ladder.

As the Legislature grinds toward adjournment of its biennial session on Aug. 31, two examples of the syndrome have surfaced.

One has to do with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates non-automotive air pollutants in Southern California.

Largely shut out of statewide politics, the California Republican Party has recently concentrated on grass-roots growth, backing candidates for city councils, school boards and other local agencies.

One effect is that Republicans achieved a majority on the air quality district’s 13-member governing board, 10 of whose members represent local governments. And the new majority quickly made its presence felt by firing the district’s long-time executive, Barry Wallenstein, and implementing more business-friendly policies.

Environmental groups were outraged by what they saw as a coup d’état, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León introduced a bill that would add three “environmental justice” advocates to the board and give the state Air Resources Board the authority to overturn regional air board decisions.

De León’s move is reminiscent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to pack the Supreme Court after it rejected a New Deal policy and also echoes the practice of legislative leaders’ changing composition of committees to achieve results they want.

The second example comes from de León’s close friend, Sen. Ricardo Lara. His bill, which the Assembly approved Thursday, would create a commission to redraw the boundaries of five Los Angles County Board of Supervisors districts after each decennial census, usurping the board’s power.

An independent commission to redraw political districts, such as the one that deals with California’s legislative and congressional districts, is a fine idea. By redrawing districts after the 2010 census, the state commission counteracted the natural tendency of politicians to draw districts that help themselves or their parties.

That tendency certainly has been evident in the Los Angeles supervisors’ post-census machinations to alter their own districts. However, Lara’s version would not be an improvement.

Rather than emulate the partisan balance of the state redistricting commission, Lara’s bill would have the county commission’s membership reflect the county’s current voter registration split, thus giving Democrats dominance and the ability to completely freeze out Republicans, who have two of the board’s five seats now.

It will be interesting to see whether these two power grabs survive the process.

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