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Supes Du Jour
The race to replace county supervisors highlights a radical shift in L.A.’s most powerful political body
Bobby Shriver idolizes Steve Jobs. With him, all conversations lead back to the iPod or the iPad. You might say Shriver, an attorney who sat on the Santa Monica City Council for eight years, is campaigning to be the Steve Jobs of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which is a bit like campaigning to be the Willy Wonka of an accounting firm. “The computer business is dense and complicated,” says Shriver, sounding less like an heir to the Kennedy dynasty and more like an ex-flower child (now age 60, he was only a teenager in that era), his speech peppered with “man” and Rolling Stones lyrics. “But Apple showed that you could make a fortune by simplifying it.” Yes, he says, “a little bit of Steve would be good there.”
Zev Yaroslavsky, who in December will be vacating the seat Shriver is running for, calls being a county supervisor “one of the most complicated jobs in the country.” To be sure, the scope of the supervisors’ empire can be difficult to appreciate. The five members each represent nearly 2 million people, more than congressmen, more than most mayors and some governors. They oversee 4,000 square miles of land and a budget of roughly $25 billion. And unlike most legislative bodies, they have no executive branch to contend with, no popular figure who can veto them with the stroke of a pen. “They’re five of the most powerful politicians in the United States,” says Hal Dash, CEO of Cerrell, an L.A.-based PR and lobbying firm.
But it’s a curious kind of power, one that concentrates on the least visible and least fortunate in society. A large part of the board’s job is to administer social welfare programs mandated and paid for by the state and federal governments. Food stamps, health care (one of the largest health care systems in the country), mental health, child and family services, and jails are managed by the county. So are the beaches and portions of the Santa Monica Mountains. The board helps fund a panoply of cultural institutions, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the Hollywood Bowl to Disney Hall. It acts as the chief legislative body for the unincorporated areas of the county, meaning that it serves as both city council and mayor for places like East L.A., Marina del Rey, and Altadena, and it runs the county library system as well as the fire department, contracting out the fire and sheriff’s departments to cities that don’t want to maintain forces of their own. (The sheriff’s department is somewhat regulated by the board but mostly operated by the elected sheriff.) Finally, the five supervisors sit on the 13-member Metro Board of Directors.
Shriver thinks the board could use some new ideas; his leading opponent, Sheila Kuehl, thinks it needs more of the same: experience. A 73-year-old former child actress who became the first openly gay member of the California state legislature in 1994, Kuehl expresses admiration for the board and has little sympathy for the argument that it’s overcomplicated or a tad dull. “Do you think saving kids from dying in foster care, and families starving to death, and people getting cancer treatment is boring and technocratic?” she asks, frowning over a cup of tea at an Italian restaurant in Santa Monica. “To me, that’s life and death. And I think that people don’t really get it. They certainly don’t get the scope of it.”
The board’s five supervisors, collectively, have held their positions for a century. The longest-serving member, Mike Antonovich, an anti-illegal immigration Reagan Republican, has been in office since 1980. None has had significant reelection fights. They get little media coverage, and the sheer acreage of their districts makes running as a challenger exceedingly expensive. But Measure B, passed by L.A. County voters in 2002, is finally setting in, holding supervisors to three consecutive four-year terms. Gloria Molina, who became the first Latina elected to the State Assembly before joining the board in 1991, is being pushed out this year. So is Yaroslavsky, a Democratic stalwart who played a key role in shifting the county’s growing public transit system away from subways, which he deemed too expensive, and toward light-rail and busways.
Just two years from now, in 2016, Republicans Antonovich and Don Knabe, a chamber of commerce type, will be termed out as well. By then, former city councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, elected in 2008, will be the board’s senior member. In other words, 80 percent of this powerful body is about to be flushed out and replaced. “It’s an unprecedented change in any governing body that I’m aware of, that much turnover in two years,” says Yaroslavsky. “You’re going to lose a lot of institutional memory…No telling how it’s gonna turn out.’
The L.A. County supervisors’ power today is a shadow of what it was decades ago, when they were derisively known as the “five little kings.” The county assessor would raise property taxes at his discretion, and supervisors approved costly projects and land acquisitions at will. In the 1960s and early ’70s, a few “kings” were accused of rewarding generous campaign contributors with lucrative development contracts, including deals with the prominent architecture firm Welton Becket & Associates. “[The supervisors] ran a closed government,” says Bill Boyarsky, a former city and county editor for the Los Angeles Times, “and engaged in what I think is unethical conduct.” No one was ever charged with criminal wrongdoing, but there was an aura of public distrust.
Much has been written about Howard Jarvis, the vodka-drinking, cigar-smoking Mormon who became the public face of California’s “tax revolt,” culminating in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes and severely limited legislators’ ability to raise them. But less known is that Jarvis became politically active by showing up at meetings and railing against the supervisors for raising the value of his home (and therefore his property tax).
Prop. 13 roiled every level of government in California, none more than the Board of Supervisors. “Before that, they had an unlimited source of income,” says Boyarsky. “When Prop. 13 passed, that took away a lot of their power to build things.” Moreover, land was growing scarce in the ’70s. The environmental movement led to the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which sealed off parts of the range from builders, and limitations were imposed by the California Coastal Act.
That era of quid pro quo may be over, but the board remains slow to respond to criticism. When critics claimed the county’s foster care system left too many children vulnerable to abuse, the board formed a blue ribbon commission that released an interim report in January, saying the department was in desperate need of “fundamental change.” But it declined to take immediate action, choosing to wait for the final version of the report, angering some on the commission.
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union began approaching the board about a raft of problems in the county jails, including the use of excessive force by sheriff’s deputies and the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates. “The board really did nothing and said nothing and made no effort to engage us on the issues,” says Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. “The silence was deafening.” Since then, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have launched criminal probes into conditions in the jails.
“I’m not going to say that I’m thrilled with the time it’s taken to get where we are,” says Yaroslavsky, “but given the constitutional protection of the sheriff’s authority over the county jails, if you have a department that’s recalcitrant, it’s difficult to get anything done.”
Journalists often accuse the board of lacking transparency and of routinely violating the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. After the supervisors met in secret with Governor Jerry Brown to discuss inmate realignment in 2011, an L.A. Times editorial excoriated them: “They locked the public out of a key policy discussion for their own ease and convenience. Don’t buy their argument that they were just taking the advice of their lawyer. They know better—and they ought to be ashamed of themselves.”
Yaroslavsky insists that the board follow the letter of the law when it comes to the Brown Act and that meetings are held in closed session for a reason—to discuss lawsuits or collective bargaining positions. “I know that the press would like us to do everything in public,” he says, “but it would be suicidal.” His apparent defiance hides a degree of caution that prevented him from running for mayor, despite ever-present rumors that he would.
One of the board’s most vocal critics has been Eric Preven, a TV producer based in Studio City. In fact, he’s competing against Shriver and Kuehl for Yaroslavsky’s seat, along with a roster of candidates that includes West Hollywood city councilman John Duran and Malibu city councilwoman Pamela Ulich. Preven is almost always at the board’s Tuesday meetings at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, decrying the latest perceived misdeeds of various supervisors, who try to ignore him. A few months ago Yaroslavsky told Preven to “just grow up.” Later that day Molina, known to be cantankerous, called him an “idiot.” Candidate Shriver, on the other hand, approached Preven at a different meeting to say, “I like your rap, man,” and asked Preven for more information. About a minute after Preven began one of his characteristic monologues, Shriver said, “Hey, hey, let me stop you. Do you know how Steve Jobs sold the first iPod?”
The race for Molina’s seat is less of a contest, with former congresswoman and secretary of labor Hilda Solis the only recognizable name. While her role in a 2012 fund-raiser for President Obama was recently the subject of a federal grand jury investigation, according to one lobbyist, “Hilda is going to walk into the seat.” Observers expect her to be less independent than Molina, who became the first Latina supervisor after the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund sued the county for intentionally gerrymandering district maps to minimize the Hispanic vote. Solis, an ally of L.A. County Federation of Labor head María Elena Durazo, is affixed to the labor machine, which already dominates the L.A. City Council and the state legislature.
That’s something new: Until now, the board has been fairly free of labor ties, with only one real exception: Ridley-Thomas, the beneficiary of roughly $8 million of union money in his 2008 race against labor foe Bernard Parks. So the conventional wisdom among political consultants and lobbyists is that whoever succeeds Yaroslavsky would be the “swing vote” on labor-related votes, either siding with Solis and Ridley-Thomas or with Knabe and Antonovich.
Plenty of others dismiss this theory, arguing that Ridley-Thomas has remained autonomous, or that the board’s ideology is too complex to sum up as “pro-labor” or “anti-labor.” But there’s also the possibility that term limits could affect these politicians in the same way they seem to affect every other politician: With board members ever focused on the next election, their traditional distance from unions—and their potential campaign contributions—could begin to shrink. “The county has probably drawn a harder line in negotiations with employees than the city, and in time that could shift a bit,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles. So does he see unions as potentially having a greater influence with term limits in effect? “A greater influence, yes. But not control.”
It’s a point of interest because the board has remained frugal through good times and bad, never spending temporary windfalls on permanent programs and always maintaining a rainy-day fund. The supervisors have kept public employee salaries and pensions in check, unlike municipalities up and down the state, including the City of Los Angeles. In fact, during the Great Recession, they distinguished themselves by not having to lay off or even furlough a single worker, despite tax revenue shortfalls, state budget cuts, and federal sequestration.
“The county has stability,” says Kuehl. “There is something to be said for stability and knowing what you’re doing.” She and almost everyone else agree: That stability is coming to an end.
The Flux Five
The rapid clearing of the board begins with this June’s election
Gloria Molina (D)
East L.A. to South Gate to Pomona
Zev Yaroslavsky (D)
Agoura to Malibu to Los Feliz
Terms Out 2020
Mark Ridley-Thomas (D)
Carson to Ladera Heights
Terms Out 2016
Don Knabe (R)
Catalina to Long Beach
to Diamond Bar
Terms Out 2016
Mike Antonovich (R)
San Dimas to Altadena