LA County Supes Vote To Consider Expanding 5-Member Board Representing Nearly 10M Residents
In response to growing calls for government reform, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to begin a process that could lead to expanding its size from the current five members.
Right now, each supervisor represents about 2 million people — more than the populations of 13 states, including West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Hawaii.
“Having more seats at the table means that more and different voices can be part of the conversation,” said Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, co-sponsor of the motion. With more supervisors, “each district will have greater access to their supervisor,” she said.
What the motion calls for
The motion calls for the hiring of a consultant “with a background in academia and/or policy with expertise at the intersection of government and equity” to examine in part “potential changes to the structure of the Board, including expansion of the Board to achieve more equitable representation.”
“I am absolutely open to it,” Supervisor Holly Mitchell, the other co-sponsor, told LAist. But she also noted that voters turned down efforts to increase the size of the board in the past, “so I think we need to look at why.”
Any proposed expansion would have to be approved by county voters.
When it comes to expansion, “nobody wants to dilute their political power,” said CalMatters commentator Dan Walters.”It's much better to be one of five than one of nine, 11 or 13,” he said, ticking off possible expansion numbers.
Support for expansion
A range of people who addressed Tuesday's meeting backed expansion.
“Expanding the board of supervisors would allow underrepresented and marginalized groups to have greater and more equitable representation in government,” said Connie Chung Joe, CEO of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Asian Americans comprise 16% of the county’s population, yet no Asian American sits on the five-member board.
“In this day where our democracy is constantly being attacked, it's important that we have people who can connect with supervisors in their own regions,” said Richard Zaldivar, executive director of The Wall Las Memorias Project.
The role the City Hall scandal plays
Historically, voters have been skeptical about expanding the number of elected officials, given their often dim view of politicians. This is a different historical moment.
The L.A. City Hall secret recording scandal has prompted calls to not only expand the City Council — where each of the 15 members represented about 260,000 residents — but the Board of Supervisors as well. The recording of top city officials and a powerful labor leader discussing how to hold onto their power during the decennial process of redrawing council district boundaries sparked outrage and calls for reform.
Under the California Constitution, each county was set up with a governing board of supervisors with five members. Only San Francisco, whose 11-member board also acts as the city council, has more.
This means Alpine County, which has a population of 1,235, has the same size board as massive L.A. County. “It's absurd,” said Walters, who advocates for a larger board for L.A.
“I think it’s extremely difficult to represent your district well,” said Rob Quan, an activist with Unrig LA, which focuses on representative government and money in politics in L.A. “Beyond that, I think having just five members on our board makes it really difficult to represent the diversity of the county.”
A $44.6B budget and long tenures
In the past, when the board was all male, its members were sometimes referred to as “little kings.” Today it is an all-woman board, but the idea remains the same. They preside over a $44.6 billion budget and are virtually untouchable at the ballot box. Because of the enormity of their districts, it's hard to mount an electoral challenge.
“I’m glad that the county is looking at this,” said Daniel Mayeda, co-chair of the county’s 2021 independent citizens redistricting commission. The commission urged supervisors to explore expanding the board in its 2021 report. “I’m hoping there’s some momentum,” he said.
Addressing distinct geographic, racial and other community interests with only five districts was impossible, Mayeda said. One example: There are not enough people living in the Antelope Valley to comprise one district, so they are part of a district that includes communities in the San Fernando Valley and even Altadena.
In addition, the motion asked county lawyers to report back in 90 days with recommendations for County campaign finance reforms to advance a more equitable process, including an analysis of adjusting contribution limits and creating a matching funds program for County elections.
The consultant hired by the board will also look at a range of other things, including “a process for advance review of proposed motions and Board letters in order to increase analysis and the opportunity for public review before they are considered by the Board.”
“We want more people to understand how the county works,” Horvath told LAist. “We want them to be involved in the public discourse and civically engaged in our policymaking.”
This story was updated on Feb. 28, 2023 to include the results of the board vote.
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