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The Five Women Leading L.A. County Consider Sharing Their Power

For the first time since 1885, the county’s Board of Supervisors may have more than just five members as the Board considers expanding its membership to better serve the region’s 10 million residents and a $712 billion economy.

Hilda Solis
Hilda Solis attends Women's March Action: March 4 Reproductive Rights at Pershing Square on Oct. 2, 2021, in Los Angeles, California.
(Amy Sussman/Getty Images/TNS)
It’s a rare sight in politics, but it’s happening in Los Angeles County, Calif., — elected officials are considering giving up some power by expanding their ranks for the first time in more than a century.

The county’s Board of Supervisors has kept its size at five members since 1885 even as the region grew to 10 million residents and the economy ballooned to $712 billion, making it the biggest US county by population and output.

These officials oversee a massive budget — $43 billion for the 2023-2024 fiscal year is now under consideration — and have the final say on spending and policy decisions that affect 88 cities and other unincorporated areas.

Now led by five women, the board has historically been dominated by white men — colloquially referred to as the “five little kings” — and faced criticism for its lack of representation and diversity. Over the years, it’s resisted calls for change to meet the complex needs of the county’s varied communities, each with its own identity and allegiances.

But mounting challenges such as a worsening homelessness crisis, rising labor unrest over stagnant wages and a shrinking population have increased pressure for reform.

In response, the current board, consisting of four Democrats and one Republican, has unanimously ordered a governance audit focusing on possible expansion, election reforms and transparency improvements. The county executive office has made a preliminary recommendation for a consultant to lead the assessment, with funding for the project to be included in the county budget that’s due to be finalized next month.

“It’s very unusual,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center of the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “In the past, there’s no way that the Board of Supervisors would even take that up. Why would they want to dilute their power?”

Each county supervisor represents about 2 million people in one of five districts that span from the home of SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne to flashy Beverly Hills to more rural areas around the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Antelope Valleys. By comparison, Illinois’ Cook County, the second-largest in the US, has 17 commissioners who represent about 300,000 residents each.

“There's been a lot of critique of what has been going on, and I think a lot of it has merit,” said Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, co-sponsor of the audit proposal. “I hope by bringing more people to the table and expanding the board, we’ll be able to have even more ideas and have it be an even more representative government.”

One of the board’s main responsibilities is to approve the annual budget, which is comparable to the state of Pennsylvania’s and funds services such as public health, social welfare and law enforcement.

The spending plan for 2023-2024 is not yet final, but it includes $692 million for a new framework to address homelessness, which includes a push to provide more mental-health services. The budget relies partly on Measure H, a voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax that went into effect in 2017 to generate about $355 million a year to fund homeless services and prevention.

Homelessness has reached a crisis state on the streets of Los Angeles County, where officials at the city level have for decades struggled to move people from encampments. A 2023 survey found that LA county’s unhoused population rose more than 40 percent from 2018 levels to 75,518 people, underscoring the failure of previous efforts to solve the problem despite billions of dollars in spending.

The current board’s approach emphasizes permanent housing, easier access to government services and cooperation with cities across the county, and also includes a push to provide more mental-health services.

Soaring property prices have been a key contributor to the issue. The county real estate market is one of the most expensive in the US, with a median house price of $860,000. The lack of affordable property has been squeezing budgets and driving away residents — updated projections from California’s Department of Finance shows the county’s population shrank 2.2 percent between July 2020 and July 2022 and it’s expected to lose about 1.5 million residents between this year and 2060.

The exodus has also been fueled by the dissatisfaction of workers who are struggling to make ends meet. Tens of thousands of them have gone on strike this year — from hotel workers, to nurses and teachers’ aides, along with the ongoing writers’ and actors’ stoppages that have ground much of Hollywood and supporting business to a halt.

And Measure H is set to expire in 2027, barring an extension or additional legislation. “We’ve got to come up with other ways to bring creative financing into the equation,” said Tommy Newman, vice president of public affairs at nonprofit United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “But no question, the cost of housing is deeply impacting the vitality of LA County and it's pushing people out every day.”

The supervisors have also attempted to tackle the overcrowding, violence and abuse that have proliferated at jails across the county as staffing problems make long-simmering problems worse. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union won a court order against the county requiring immediate improvements, after allegations surfaced of jail staff chaining detainees with mental health issues to chairs for days and leaving people to sleep on concrete floors.

One of the board’s efforts at reform has fallen flat: A measure introduced by Horvath and Supervisor Hilda Solis to depopulate county jails and close the aging Men’s Central Jail was dropped in April after broad challenges to the plan that cited, among other things, the board’s failure to consult with local communities and other stakeholders.

The independent LA County Citizens Redistricting Commission has proposed to increase the number of board members and districts in a 2021 report — a move that Chair Daniel Madeya said would improve the connection between citizens and supervisors. "That would allow the people to be closer to their supervisors and actually, if they needed to get something done, to have some clear place to go and actually be heard," he said in an interview.

Political scandals have eroded area residents’ trust in their local governments. Last year, an audio recording surfaced of Los Angeles City Council members making racist remarks about a colleague’s son and constituents, leading to multiple resignations. Marred by the incident, the 15-member council is now also considering adding more seats to represent its 4 million residents.

Efforts to expand the LA county board will also have to contend with voters’ history of rejecting previous attempts due to concerns about costs and opposition to bigger government. A 2017 state effort is the most recent failure.

The "conundrum" for voters is that they want better representation, but not more costs, according to Supervisor Holly Mitchell. She said reform is needed to make the current system more transparent and accountable, especially given the outsized budget and large population that the board oversees.

“We have a responsibility to be mindful of our funding,” she said. “We have a huge constituency with great needs. From my perspective it could be 50 people on the board, but if we don’t get our governance right in terms of transparency and accountability, it really won’t matter.”

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