Commentary: For the powerful five ‘kings’ of Los Angeles County, change is in the air

Los Angeles County has 10 million residents, a quarter of all Californians and more people than all but seven states.

Not surprisingly, therefore, control of Los Angeles County’s government is a very big political deal.

For decades, the county’s five long-serving male supervisors were known as the “five little kings,” and even though women now occupy four of the five seats, the royal appellation still applies because of the vast power they wield.

However, whether the five incumbent supervisors can hold their seats – and their authority – until forced out by term limits is now uncertain because of efforts in the Capitol to change how the county is governed.

Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to create a supposedly independent commission to revise supervisorial districts after the 2020 census, rather than allow the board to redraw them, as they have for decades.

The last round of redistricting was a political dogfight, reflecting the simple fact that there are many more specific ethnic, regional, cultural and economic interest groups in the county than the five seats available to represent them.

A deal was finally worked out, but Latino activists were angered that they got just one seat even though Latinos are about half of the county’s population.

Latino rights groups believe they would have a better shot at getting another seat via a commission. But Republicans are angry that the panel would, by law, have a majority of Democrats (matching voter registration), thus guaranteeing the party’s domination of county government. And the Board of Supervisors dislikes losing its redistricting power and has sued to block the commission.

Incidentally, a pending bill this year would give the state’s second largest county, San Diego, the same kind of partisan redistricting commission.

An even bigger change in Los Angeles County’s governance – one also opposed by the present board – is in the works.

Senate Constitutional Amendment 12, carried by state Sen. Tony Mendoza of Cerritos, would expand the Board of Supervisors to at least seven members after the 2020 census and, most importantly, shift much of its power to an elected county executive.

The new position would have the same kind of authority that big city mayors and governors wield to hire and fire, sign or reject legislation and fashion budgets.

It would, Mendoza and other advocates say, bring order to the chaos of having five supervisors giving policy orders that sometimes countermand each other, without someone who’s accountable to all voters.

There’s merit in that argument, just as there is merit in large cities having strong mayors. The buck should stop somewhere.

At the same time, creating an elected county executive in Los Angeles would establish arguably the state’s second most powerful political office and a powerful platform from which to run for governor or U.S. senator.

It would touch off a feeding frenzy among local politicians if it happens, which is by no means certain. The measure cleared the Senate Governance and Finance Committee last week after a brisk debate, but still must receive two-thirds votes in both legislative houses and approval by California voters.

“It’s very political,” said committee chairman Mike McGuire, a Healdsburg Democrat and former Sonoma County supervisor.

No kidding.

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