Los Angeles County Lite?

Probably I’m one of only about 238 people who think this is a big deal, but trust me, it’s a big deal! From Rick Orlov’s Daily News column today:

Prodded by City Councilwoman Jan Perry, a review has been quietly started to look at what it would take to have the city become its own county — similar to San Francisco — in an effort to get more federal and state funding.

Perry said she asked for a preliminary review by the Chief Legislative Analyst s Office because of the homelessness situation and the belief that Los Angeles County may dole out money to address the crisis based on politics rather than need.

It will take months before anything really surfaces, and it would be a complicated breakup. Remember how long it took to get the San Fernando Valley secession process vetted and on the ballot?

The difference is, the special interests who would favor a breakup probably have equal or greater ability to make this happen than the San Fernando Valley interests did.   Combined with Mayor Villaraigosa’s successful effort to obtain partial control of the previously independent LA Unified School District, this has the looks of a trend — the City of Los Angeles wanting to be accountable for all major governmental services within its boundaries. 

Who does what is a major source of confusion for many LA residents.  Right now, the City of LA is responsible for: law enforcement, firefighting, sanitation (trash from single-family homes and all sewage), libraries, street maintenance, street lighting, animal regulation, zoning, some parks, regulating cable TV and pipelines, and other less-visible services.  In addition, the city owns a public utility that sells water and electricity, and a port and several airports that very profitably lease space to shipping-related companies and airlines. 

The County is responsible for health services, welfare, children’s services, management of the criminal and civil courts and other criminal justice services like public defenders and probation, and flood control for the entire county, including all the cities.  It also provides law enforcement, firefighting; and other municipal services in the unincorporated areas, and, on a contract basis, to some cities.  For example, Beverly Hills has its own police department, but neighboring West Hollywood contracts with the County Sheriffs.   The county also has control over a number of cultural institutions: the Music Center, the Hollywood Bowl, LACMA.  The city has a cultural affairs department too, but its assets aren’t quite as notable.  Don’t even get me started on who does mosquito abatement.

Obviously, what’s at play here are the big-ticket items — health and welfare, both of which administer huge programs that receive huge allocations from the state and federal governments.  Undoubtedly the County would keep running the courts and continue to be responsible for dams and flood channels. I doubt the City Council wants to set up a new coroner’s office.  

This is not about decentralization.  It’s also not about “respect,” which was the driving force in the Valley secession movement.  A power struggle?  Yes.   But it’s also about the relationship between the government and the governed, and the mediating role of elected officials at the different levels.   There are only five county supervisors.  Their districts are bigger than most cities and some states.  They tend to be invisible.  There are not enough of them to go around, to cover the needs of 10 million people.  In the city, there are fifteen council members, which means the ratio of constituents to elected officials is somewhat smaller. 

One of the first things that will happen if the city effects this secession will be a reality check on the way the city governs itself.  The question of how much power the mayor should have relative to the council members, and how many council members there should be — all that will be reopened.  Which is fine.  Even without this expansion of its role, I believe the city needs more councilmembers.

Maybe this idea will die a quiet death.  But I don’t think so.  Accountability is an idea with the wind at its back.


4 thoughts on “Los Angeles County Lite?

  1. Almost all of California would benefit from a reconsideration of boundaries and responsibilities of local governments. The structure is antiquated and an excessive amount of power is concentrated in too few hands (county supervisors).

    A redesign of our legislature wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. (I’d happily vote for a 500 member unicameral part-time legislature but that will never happen. Imagine districts where someone could win without mass amounts of money from special interests and powers-that-be in the major parties!)

  2. Doug McIntyre was talking about this yesterday and decided that while L.A. should be able to become its own county, it shouldn’t be allowed to take the name with it. He suggested that the new county be called Anaheim.

  3. So where do the current supervisors stand on this? During my time there we had a few run-ins with Yaroslavsky, and he hadn’t ascended to the Supes then. I can see him fighting like crazy to keep the authority he’s got now.

  4. The matter has not been brought back to the City Council yet, and as I said, it might never even get that far. But having worked with politicians for 25 years I can tell you this: They never want their current authority diluted, divided or reduced in any way. That’s why the Board of Supervisors has remained a five-person board despite the incredible growth in LA County since the board was established: Nobody wants to approve a motion that would reduce the power of their vote, or the number of people they represent.

    (As an aside, this is why conservative/libertarian regimes always fail, as the recent Republican defeat showed. They start out wanting to shrink the size of government in the abstract, but they end up acting to enlarge the scope, size and cost of government within their jurisdictions, and will do anything to protect their ability to do that.

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