Nearly all local governments struggle to find the right balance of power between the elected officials who set policy and the manager and staff who far outnumber them and do most of the work. In order to make the lead decision-maker more responsive to the public, several large cities have moved away from the manager form of government toward a strong-mayor system. In Los Angeles County, the board of supervisors has gone in the opposite direction, giving up much of its power to the unelected county administrator.
Los Angeles is the nation's largest county, with 100,000 employees and a $20 billion budget. Running it would be a big task for anybody, but it's been particularly tough because so much managerial authority rests with the five elected supervisors. After veteran administrator David Janssen announced plans to step down, two candidates quite publicly passed on the job, while others demurred from seeking it. They felt they just wouldn't have the clout to do it right.
"It's the problem that's pervasive with counties everywhere," says Jackie Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties. "Administrators don't have the same level of authority that a city manager would have."
Stung by the job-candidate turn-downs, the L.A. County board recently voted to cede some of its power to the administrator, letting him hire and fire most appointed department heads. Not all the supervisors were happy doing that, but most of them admitted it was preferable to the hydra-headed system the county has had in place. "It's become clear to the L.A. board that they've got to formalize a lot of the authority to make sure that they get a viable replacement for David," says Jim Keene, of the International City-County Management Association.
One veteran supervisor, Mike Antonovich, took exception. He compared a county government dominated by an administrator to colonial government under King George III. "What it does," a spokesman for Antonovich argued, "is create an additional barrier between the public and the vital public services it pays for."
It is tough to strike the right balance between ballot-box accountability and the fact that most government officials are unelected. Whoever the new county administrator is, he or she will still have to answer to the board of supervisors. That should ease some of the concerns. The other option--electing a countywide mayor-- has been rejected by voters several times.