For more than two decades, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has been dominated by members who spent their formative political years with the board's crazy fraternal twin, the L.A. City Council. They brought to county government a set of perspectives and a style of governing shaped by big-city needs and big-city politics.
Now, that three-member majority of City Hall alumni is about to evaporate as Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky near the end of their county tenure. The leading candidates to replace them come from not from mammoth Los Angeles but from much smaller municipalities, with political cultures of an entirely different brand. The shift will undoubtedly change the nature of the board. But how?
For one thing, it's likely the board will adopt a different style of governing. Molina, Yaroslavsky and Mark Ridley-Thomas all served on a City Council that was L.A.'s governing body, as responsible as the mayor for managing a massive budget and setting spending, policy and planning priorities. They inserted themselves into every aspect of city government, not just at council meetings — where they might dress down a department chief — but also in their daily work, negotiating with developers or demanding more street repaving.
And they were full-time employees, unable to hold outside jobs and restricted in their outside earnings. Trying to run one of the world's great cities was their all-absorbing task. From such a perch, even becoming mayor could be a bit of a letdown. There was only one real way to graduate: move up to the Board of Supervisors.
When they got there, they governed the county much as they did the city, for good and for ill. They have been intensively hands-on, intervening directly or through staff in contracts, services and every other aspect of government.
How might that change? The 3rd District, where Yaroslavsky now serves, is likely to have a very different kind of supervisor going forward. Yaroslavsky has spent almost all of his adult life as a politician. Of the four current and former elected officials running to succeed him, three are from cities in which serving on a city council is a part-time gig, conducted mostly on Monday or Tuesday evenings after members have finished working at their day jobs. West Hollywood Councilman John Duran is a criminal defense lawyer; Malibu Councilwoman Pamela Conley Ulich is a labor lawyer; former Santa Monica Councilman Bobby Shriver is a lawyer and venture capitalist. Sheila Kuehl, also a lawyer and also from Santa Monica, did serve full time as a member of the Assembly and state Senate, but she has no direct experience in municipal government.
In smaller cities such as the ones Duran, Conley Ulich and Shriver come from, the council's job is to hire and oversee a city manager, who in turn supervises the staff that does the municipality's nuts-and bolts work. Council members wouldn't think of going over the city manager's head to talk to a department chief. They would take up their issues instead with the city manager.
A new county supervisor with that kind of part-time background might have some difficulty adjusting to the vast powers and responsibilities — and time commitments — of the board. The most sweeping change needed will be in outlook. Shriver, for example, has called for more board meetings around the county, and Conley Ulich wants more on Saturday mornings — displaying a perception that local government is something that happens at a weekly public meeting rather than everywhere and all the time.
On the other hand, a board that shows greater deference to professional staff on day-to-day matters might well be an improvement for the county.
The city's modern hegemony on the Board of Supervisors began with Molina's 1991 election to represent a traditionally San Gabriel Valley-oriented district that was redrawn to remedy decades of discrimination against Latino voters. But she is a Los Angeles resident who lives in the district's far-western corner and served on the L.A. City Council. Now she is likely to be replaced by Hilda Solis, who represents a return eastward to the small valley cities of La Puente and El Monte. Solis' career has been spent in the Legislature and Congress (and most recently as secretary of Labor), so it's hard to predict her approach toward county government.
One almost certain change with the new board is that Los Angeles will lose some clout in important places such as the Metro board, where the city for years has had double representation, or at least perspective: the mayor and his three appointees, plus a majority of the Board of Supervisors. Now there will be four supervisors with backgrounds in smaller cities and, perhaps, plans and perspectives that align more readily with Metro's three small-city representatives.
On joint city-county efforts such as promoting tourism and film production, important links between City Hall and the county Hall of Administration are soon to disappear. It may become even harder for the supervisors to spread responsibility for the homeless and other urban challenges to far-flung suburban communities (although Santa Monica and West Hollywood are particularly urban suburbs) just as it may become more difficult to direct funding for amenities such as rail to the urban core.
Ridley-Thomas will soon be the only supervisor who lives in the city of Los Angeles and has experience on a full-time municipal governmental body. The new Board of Supervisors, with its perspectives formed less in downtown L.A. and more in the suburbs, may present a challenge to the city-county relationship. Or it may begin a new era of regional cooperation. The direction will be largely in the hands of county supervisors from small cities.
Robert Greene is a Times editorial writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun