THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: More members are no substitute for reform

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 

Contributing Columnist

For nearly a century there have been repeated calls to expand the number of supervisors who serve on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. 

There have been several ballot measures to expand the board from five to 10, 11, 13 or more. The calls for expansion and the ballot measures have gone absolutely nowhere. The voters have said no. 

The supervisors haven’t been overly eager to push expansion, either. That’s where matters have remained, but the idea of board expansion hasn’t died. It shouldn’t. 

Each supervisor represents a population that is bigger than that of many large cities. It is simply impossible to meet the monumental, diverse and constant demands for services that the vast number of constituents in each of their districts require and demand.

The board should be expanded. But even if that happens, it would not totally solve the largest problem facing the supervisors. Deep, structural reforms and changes are desperately needed for the board to be truly effective and representative.

Simply putting more bodies on the board before — and the operative word is before — there is a massive, sweeping and deeply structural reform would be little more than a meaningless, feel-good ploy that gives the appearance of reform without changing anything except the numbers. 

The proponents of board expansion endlessly point to the far bigger numbers on the New York and Chicago city councils to bolster their case that this is what the board should look like.

However, they do not go the requisite step further and say whether having more bodies on those councils has improved the quality of services, increased political responsiveness to constituents, and most importantly, made their city governments more open, accountable, and free of the taint of big, corporate money, or moneyed special interest lobbying and influence. 

The only thing they offer as a plus is that more bodies increase diversity by putting more Blacks, Hispanics, and women on the councils. That is not enough. 

Again, more bodies on a county board, no matter the color or gender, does not automatically mean more transparency and accountability. There is no reason to think this would be any different with more bodies warming more Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor seats.

The only reason that some board members now mention expansion is because they eye the backlash and attention that the L.A. City Council has taken after a leaked recording caught three council members spouting racist, derogatory cracks or being silent about them. The furor over the tape ignited non-stop demonstrations, finger-pointing by the local and national media and state and national officials at the City Council for racism, corruption, dysfunction and its chronic thumb-the-nose-at-the-public form of decision-making.

So, council members, to quell the rage, quickly latched onto the idea of expansion. The board has followed suit. However, the real question is whether the board will continue to pursue not just expansion but real reform once the public rage passes? Or will it continue conducting business as usual in more secrecy, more closed-door decision-making, and minimal to no accountability to residents and stakeholders?

There is already a wide body of substantive reform proposals, measures and blueprints for legislative change that have been on the table for local governmental bodies to adopt. Most of the reform measures have been routinely ignored by those same bodies. 

The major one involves transparency on spending. Los Angeles County residents pay tens of millions in taxes, fees and varied assessments yearly. The board is tasked with budgeting and spending that money.

How many taxpayers know how, and on what, the money is spent? How many know how decisions are made on the spending? 

The answers are deliberately shrouded in a cloak of mystery and invisibility to the public. The cloak remains even more tightly drawn when some citizen groups demand answers.

The county Board of Supervisors has long been ripe pickings for money from lobbyists, corporate developers and labor bureaucrats who have a direct pipeline to the board. They are the ones who are counted on to provide the big dollars for re-election campaigns. 

It is a cozy, chummy, scratch-my-back relationship that smacks of self-aggrandizement and political insularity. There is zero public input or knowledge of those decisions until after the fact, if then. 

Executive sessions are the favorite, time-worn ploy the board uses to maintain opaqueness, mystery, secrecy and self-aggrandizement.

The tape that caught three City Council members making cracks and digs about Blacks and Latinos and concocting schemes about redistricting was shocking only because this was one of the rare times that the public had an open window on the secret machinations of politicians. However, the secrecy embedded in the way the council and the board have always done business is routine.

L.A. politicians pay much lip service to accountability. And, as with transparency, few really mean it, let alone welcome it.

Putting more warm bodies on the county Board of Supervisors without the big reforms required does not strike to the heart of making the council truly a body that embodies in spirit and fact true, representative government. That’s the real challenge for the board.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m. 

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