The county of Los Angeles has long been the Great White Whale plying the vast ocean of California politics. Avaricious opportunists and starry-eyed reformers alike have been in furious pursuit, dreaming that if they could just sink their harpoon, the leviathan would no longer be a menace, and there would be blubber and whale meat aplenty for all.
Enter state Sen. Tony Mendoza, the Ahab of Artesia, a tiny landlocked city of 17,000, tucked away in a forgotten 1.6-square-mile corner of the county between Cerritos and Norwalk. Artesia ranks No. 70 in population out of the county’s 88 cities in its 4,751-square-mile jurisdiction.
A former elementary school teacher, Mendoza’s entire local government career consists of nine years representing barely 3,000 constituents on the Artesia City Council. Nevertheless, this apparently qualifies him to dictate how to run a county of more than 10 million with a workforce of 109,000 and an annual budget topping $30 billion – a jurisdiction larger than 42 states. And he’s decided that what the people of Los Angeles County need is more politicians, expanding the Board of Supervisors by two members and creating an elected county executive in the name of “checks and balances,” like the big boys do it in Sacramento and Washington.
There’s a long line of critics, from former county supervisors and termed-out legislators to good-government types like the League of Women Voters, that have banged away on this issue. But inconveniently, there’s just one hitch: the voters of Los Angeles County don’t like it, don’t want it and have rejected similar proposals numerous times.
Nevetheless, Mendoza thinks he’s found a workaround: since L.A. County won’t approve it, why not ask the voters of Alpine (population 1,071), Sierra (population 2,947), Modoc (population 8,795) and the other 54 California counties if they think we need more local politicians? So Mendoza has proposed instead SCA 12, a statewide constitutional amendment that would force L.A. County, and only L.A. County, to expand its board and create an office of county mayor by 2022.
Last year, the Legislature rejected Mendoza’s earlier SCA 8, which unwisely set the bar too low, drawing opposition from legislators representing the counties of San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside. So this time, he bumped up the threshold to apply only to counties with populations of more than 5 million in the 2020 census – of which there will be exactly one.
In fact, the case for board expansion is fundamentally flawed, arguing wrongly that California counties – state administrative units tasked primarily with implementing state and federal programs using state and federal money – are comparable to cities, states and the federal government. But counties directly serve and represent only their unincorporated constituents; in Los Angeles, 90 percent of the county population is represented and served by city governments, which sometimes contract with the county.
Moreover, by capping the county’s central administrative budget at current levels, the plan simply spreads out the same staffing resources more thinly among additional offices, yielding no constituent benefit. Expanding the board to seven also risks diluting Latino representation – from 20 percent to about 14 percent – potentially violating the Voting Rights Act.
Nor is winning the necessary legislative and voter approval a sure thing. In the unlikely event SCA 12 makes the ballot, public employee unions will strongly oppose it, and the only organized support may likely come from eccentric tech billionaires like Peter Thiel or Ron Unz.
So Mendoza might want to reflect on how badly the other Ahab’s futile quest turned out: His elusive whale sank the ship and killed everybody – except Ishmael.
Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.