Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Going After Dysfunctional L.A. County Government

In his latest column on L.A. County's Board of Supervisors, the great Los Angeles Times columnist, Steve Lopez, reported on the costly mailings of Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose often loony right wing views are circulated to numerous recipients at taxpayer expense.

This follows up on a recent Lopez column on all the supervisors wasting their time during official meetings on commendatory resolutions when major problems, such as health care, fighting in the county prisons and poor hospitals and children's' services go mostly untouched by needed action.

That Antonovich can say anything he likes, and all the Supervisors can commend anyone they wish to commend is without question. This is a free country, and if an elected official wants to make a damn fool of himself or herself, he or she is free to do so.

But there are elections, and it's high time more substantial opposition comes forward to give the electorate a real chance to change the five-member board.

This board of supervisors, I must freely acknowledge, is not as corrupt as it was a few years ago, when what Times Political Writer Bill Boyarsky called "the five little kings" ran county government. In those days, to an extent greater than at present, each supervisor was a king in his or her own district, and nothing could happen in a district without that supervisor's consent.

In time, the five kings all died or were retired. One of them, Kenny Hahn, was a commendable public servant who backed civil rights and fought effectively for the black community when it had few champions.

But then and now, the supervisors as a body did not usually accomplish much good for the public. The county government was on the whole much less able in its ability to bring constructive solutions to governmental problems than Los Angeles city government.

While Boyarsky, Ray Zeman and other Times county reporters have had the most to do with covering the supervisors, I, as a political writer, mostly left the field to them, with one exception.

That was the case of Ernest Debs, a perennial glad hander who was long one of the least desirable members of this, I might say again for emphasis, dysfunctional body.

Debs served on the board from 1958 to 1974, when he was finally replaced by Edmund D. Edelman, who was an unexciting but honest member of the board from 1974 to 1994.

Debs, like most board members, had been easily reelected time and again, because, as is presently the case, he and other incumbent supervisors were seldom opposed by any well-financed or well known candidates. It is expensive to run for these positions, the districts sprawl all over the place and the board simply does not get the attention of other levels of government. Therefore, it can accomplish very little of anything without arousing much public distaste.

But in Debs' case, his virtually free ride, came to an end when my longtime close friend, Jake Stuchen, then the mayor of Beverly Hills, told me one day that the supervisor had solicited a bribe to rule out the building of a high-rise tower right on the Beverly Hills line in West Hollywood, which was part of Debs' district. The high-rise would have literally put some homes in Beverly Hills in the shadow.

My story ran prominently, and although it took awhile, that was the beginning of the end of Debs' political career. Under the attentive reporting I now lavished on him, Edelman, then a Los Angeles city councilman who was well known and well financed, came forward to say he would run, and Debs abruptly retired.

He explained his health was instrumental in his decision not to stand for reelection. "I want to live," Debs said. He then retired to Palm Springs, along with a substantial amount of unused campaign funds, and actually did live to the age of 97.

Immodestly, I might say, I did feel a sense of achievement.

Debs really did not want to go. He fought hard after the bribe allegation to preserve his position, and one way he did it was to try to answer every article I wrote. In fact, during this period, Debs, who had been hard for me to reach earlier, was quick to answer every one of my telephone calls. One time, I called him and his office patched me through in minutes to the Arctic, where Debs was taking one of his junkets to view energy sources.

This is part of what political writers should do, focus attention on the shortcomings of officials who have probably lasted too long in office, and I seldom was loathe to do it, although, to be honest, I probably did not do as much of it as I should or could have.

Now, however, is the time for further reform. As I say, the present supervisors, so far as we know, are not corrupt, although Antonovich should not be sending out these mailings at public expense, but they are not doing their jobs very well either. Fortunately, the Times now has Lopez to point that out.

Let's hope he, and other Times writers, pursue the subject as diligently as Mike Goodman and Bill Rempel did in examining dysfunction in the Las Vegas courts last week.


Anonymous Carter said...

Antonovich's "loony right wing views" as opposed to many of his colleagues' loony left wing views?


6/16/2006 7:15 AM  

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