The Favored Few
Just how democratic is LA County’s quasi-feudal form of government?
By Kevin Uhrich 11/29/2012
With a popular and progressive but negligent and unaccountable sheriff managing a department currently under federal investigation for allegedly operating one of the most corrupt and sadistic jail systems in the country, and a county tax assessor currently sitting in one of those jail cells, facing two-dozen felony corruption charges for allegedly taking bribes, now seems like an opportune time to ask why these two jobs remain elected positions in Los Angeles County.
In the case of the assessor, chosen by the people since LA County was formed in 1850, the same year California was admitted into the Union, the question of whether that should become an appointed position was placed on the Nov. 6 ballot in the form of Measure A, a nonbinding advisory proposition that ultimately lost by 77.8 percent of the vote. Even the unfolding scandal involving current LA County Assessor John Noguez — who remains behind bars after pleading innocent to allegedly accepting $185,000 in bribes from a campaign contributor in exchange for huge property tax refunds from the county — was not enough to sway the electorate to begin the process of changing the current system.
In Noguez’s absence, the Board of Supervisors has appointed Santos Kreimann to serve as acting assessor until the elected assessor is cleared or convicted.
The Sheriff’s Department has also been headed by an elected leader for the past 162 years, a position that, like that of the assessor, was written into the state Constitution two years before the Board of Supervisors was even seated. Although there have been many calls over the years to change that job to an appointed post, nothing has ever come of them.
If anything — as head of Homeland Security in Los Angeles and Orange counties, manager of the nation’s largest jail system and provider of police services for 42 cities, 130 unincorporated communities, 10 community colleges and, most recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — Sheriff Lee Baca has only become more powerful, heading a 16,000-employee law enforcement agency with vastly more responsibilities and powers than when he first took office.
Up in the air
In LA County, three top administrators are elected by the people: the district attorney, the assessor and the sheriff. The closest the county has come in modern times to having an appointed sheriff was in 1998, following the death of former Sheriff Sherman Block, Baca’s mentor.
Block joined the department in 1956 and, like Baca, worked his way up through the ranks. He came to the job as did practically all of the others before him: handpicked by his predecessor (in Block’s case, Peter Pitchess, sheriff from 1959 to 1982) and backed by the all-white, all-male county Board of Supervisors.
In 1998, six years after the Los Angeles Riots, the reform-resistant Block ran for a fifth term but died a few weeks before the election at age 74. Nonetheless, his name remained on the ballot and Baca’s political enemies asked the Board of Supervisors to formally support the dead sheriff. That way, if Block had won, the five supervisors, some of whom did not embrace Baca as part of “the club,” could have chosen his replacement, at least temporarily, until another election could be held. Baca, however, went on to win easily, getting 61.3 percent of the 1.8 million votes cast in that race. With the win he became the county’s first American Latino sheriff since the 1800s (Eugene Biscailuz, who served as sheriff from 1932 to 1958, was French and Basque) and the first sheriff ever not pre-selected by his predecessor and the powers that be.
To his credit, this moderate Republican in a nonpartisan position, now in the middle of a fourth term, publicly says many encouraging things and frequently speaks out for more funding to better deal with the growing numbers of the homeless and mentally ill people finding their way into overcrowded county lockups.
Under the heading “Our Core Values” on the sheriff’s Web site, Baca writes: “As a leader in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, I commit myself to honorably perform my duties with respect for the dignity of all people, integrity to do right and fight wrongs, wisdom to apply common sense and fairness in all I do and courage to stand against racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and bigotry in all its forms.”
But, while hitting all the politically correct notes, in reality, Baca has come under fire for being soft on celebrities like Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton and for admittedly turning a blind eye to deputy abuse of county jail inmates — including the mentally ill — and allowing a culture of corruption and virtual gangsterism to flourish within the massive department’s ranks.
In a recent searing review of the sheriff’s performance regarding the jails, the Citizens’ Committee on Jail Violence, a nonpartisan group of ex-judges, law enforcement experts and activists appointed by the Board of Supervisors, found that the sheriff ultimately bears responsibility for all the bad things going on in the jails and the rest of the department. A “failure of leadership” is how the commission put it.
Ever the politician, and one clearly with an eye on a fifth term in 2014, Baca did the politically expeditious thing by thanking commission members for all their hard work, immediately agreeing with most of the findings and publicly vowing to initiate nearly all of the dozens of recommended reforms. Unlike his predecessor, who essentially ignored proposals for reform made by the Kolts Commission formed after the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police, Baca at least seems receptive to the concept of change. After all, it’s not as if he has been oblivious to calls for reform. During his time in office, Baca started the Office of Independent Review (OIR), a group of six attorneys which examines department policies and procedures in use-of-force and deputy-involved shootings and makes recommendations for improvement. But it remains to be seen whether any real change will occur as a result of the citizens’ commission’s recommendations.
Then again, Baca — who grew up in hardscrabble East LA, worked his way up through school and department ranks and now holds a PhD in public administration from USC — could have very well told the Board of Supervisors, and the commissioners, for that matter, to go to pound sand, putting his faith in a supportive if uninformed electorate to keep him in office. For the time being, the sheriff appears unprepared to go that route.
But to that end, Baca seemed to think it was necessary to remind the commissioners of potential alternative reactions to their findings. At one point during that panel’s public hearings earlier this year, the sheriff defiantly testified that only “the people” can kick him out of office for unsatisfactory performance. And that doesn’t seem likely, considering he ran unopposed in the 2010 election. When asked in testimony before the commissioners how he should be held accountable for the problems in the jails, Baca, according to a story appearing in the Los Angeles Times, said simply, “Don’t elect me.”
Chances are most people don’t realize just how much power they are investing in the person occupying the position of sheriff. If LA County were a country — at 9.8 million people, it is nearly as populous as Greece or the Czech Republic — Baca, head of the largest paramilitary force in the United States, would be the equivalent of an army commander, an elected general, a notion contrary to ideals of civilian democratic rule.
As awesome as that power may sound, however, these duties are not really that dissimilar to sheriffs of the early years, going back to the ninth century. Back then, the serfs, or citizens of “shires,” or towns in feudal England, chose a “reeve,” or guardian appointed by the king to protect the people as well as the royal investments by settling disputes, collecting taxes and punishing those who didn’t pay up. Hence, the terms “shire” and “reeve” were eventually combined to create the word “sheriff,” according to a brief history by Sheriff Roger Scott of DeKalb County, Ill., writing in “Roots: An Historical Perspective of the Office of Sheriff” at sheriffs.org. But make no mistake: The sheriff really worked for the king, not always the people. Today, of the country’s 3,083 sheriffs, roughly 98 percent are elected, Scott wrote.
Similar questions about the roles of what amount to bureaucratic heads of mission-specific county departments, like the sheriff’s, have also been raised in the tax profession over the years. Tax assessors — holding an office that originated in England and found its way to the American colonies in the late 1700s — are as ubiquitous as elected sheriffs. “From England, the 13 American colonies inherited the same scheme of organization and principles: Voters had to be landowners, and personal property, such as household goods and vehicles, wagons in those days, was taxed. The tax man,” according to a history of the job by the Harris County (Texas) Tax Assessor’s Office, “whether sheriff or tax collector, kept the records and collected” the money, states the report found at hctax.net/forms/TaxOfficeHistory.pdf.
In some American counties, the roles of sheriff and assessor have been historically interchangeable. In Josephine County Ore., for instance, the office of assessor was created in 1844 by the would-be state’s provisional government. The following year, the Legislative Assembly decreed that assessments were to be made by the sheriff. Five years later — just nine years prior to Oregon’s statehood — the assessor was authorized to make assessments and the sheriff was authorized to collect taxes. It wasn’t until 1970 that all that changed, according to Josephine County Online, and responsibility for collecting taxes shifted to the assessor, treasurer or tax collector. But even today, states the Harris County report, “the sheriff is the tax collector in many small Texas counties.”
In the last general election, both the LA County Republican and Democratic parties, along with the Los Angles Times, opposed Measure A, with the Times opining that doing away with an elected assessor would limit democracy, as the caption, “Hey, LA, do you want more democracy, or less?” on one of the story’s accompanying photos suggests.
Yes, the Times acknowledges, “It is true that political corruption is an inherent problem with elected assessors, because they need campaign money when they’re running for office and, once elected, they have the power to reward supporters and punish opponents by setting taxable property values.”
And true, the editorial continues, “Voters know as little about assessor candidates as they do about people running for Superior Court judge … [J]ust as they must be wary of judicial candidates raising campaign money from the very litigants who will bring cases before them, [voters] must be concerned as well about assessor candidates who will be setting the taxable value of property belonging to big campaign donors.”
But — and this is where the editorial draws a vague but critical line — Measure A should be opposed because “it doesn’t answer any of the balance-of-power questions raised by the Noguez scandal … Appointing the assessor and removing the voters’ oversight merely trades one set of hazards for another,” among them making the assessor susceptible to the self-serving political whims of the Board of Supervisors and disrupting the current system of checks and balances, a system which didn’t seem to be working very well in the case of Noguez, a former mayor of Huntington Park.
Interestingly, the Times’ stand conflicts substantially with other lesser-known positions taken by nonpartisan tax experts, who have for years questioned not only the role, but also the effectiveness of elected tax assessors. In “Elected Versus Appointed Assessors and the Achievement of Assessment Uniformity,” appearing in the National Tax Journal in 1989, writers John H. Bowman and John L. Mikesell found widespread support among those in the industry for appointed assessors.
“Appointment of the assessor does not assure competent performance any more than it does for other key administrative positions, and there are many capable elected assessors; but when appointment is limited to persons with certified professional qualifications, there is more assurance of employing a person with the required technical and administrative skills than if the selection is left to voters,” Bowman and Mikesell quote from the report, “Assessment Administration — Elected or Appointed.”
“Running for re-election steals time from the work of assessing, and when the turnover of the office is frequent, a community is likely to experience a succession of incumbents each learning his job at public expense,” that report states.
“On balance,” Bowman and Mikesell conclude, “the traditional argument still is that appointed assessors can be expected to perform better than elected assessors.”
What is democratic?
The Times calls the county’s current election system for assessor a “hybrid,” inasmuch as its leaders over the years — with the exception of Noguez, the first Latino to hold that office since the late-1800s — have not really been elected as much as handpicked prior to election, much like the ages-old procedure in the Sheriff’s Department. In the case of the assessor, it’s been rare, the Times points out, “to have an open election for assessor, with no incumbent seeking to keep the seat. More often, an assessor resigns or retires in the middle of his term, the Board of Supervisors appoints an interim replacement, and that person runs, and generally wins, as an incumbent.”
The race for the District Attorney’s Office, won by longtime Deputy DA Jackie Lacey, the first woman and the first African American to hold the position, was the first time in 50 years that an incumbent DA didn’t run, the Times reported, although Lacey was 12-year incumbent DA Steve Cooley’s handpicked choice for the job.
But, the truth is, the Sheriff’s Department, the assessor’s job and the DA’s Office are small potatoes compared to even greater examples of democratic opportunities blown or misused and public participation thwarted in LA County.
First on that list: The Board of Supervisors.
Most of the five supervisors are now thoroughly entrenched incumbents many times over who never really had to worry about being re-elected once in office. Representing roughly 2 million people apiece and lording (as feudal kings or queens might) over 4,083 square miles of rugged mountains, scenic coastline, vast farmland and inhabitable desert, they all know it would take a millionaire — which some supervisors have become while in office — to beat them.
The composition of the board today is a far cry from that of just 30 years ago. In 1979, Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, who had just served in Congress, became the first woman and first black member of the Board of Supervisors when she was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. She lost the 1980 election for the District 4 seat to Deane Dana, returning the board to its all-male and all-white status.
Twelve years later, Burke ran again, this time for the District 2 seat vacated by legendary Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who had served on the board from 1952 to his retirement in 1992. Hahn, who had served on the LA City Council before becoming supervisor, headed an LA political dynasty; his son, James, now a Superior Court judge, served as mayor of LA, and his daughter, Janice, now a congresswoman, was on the LA council. For the record, Kenny Hahn, who died in 1997, was no relation to former County Assessor Kenneth P. Hahn, who was the first openly gay person to serve in the position.
Just as it had zero black members before Burke, the board had also had no one with a Spanish surname since the late 1880s. Then, in 1992, former LA Councilwoman Gloria Molina won the board’s District 1 seat, formerly held by Pete Schabarum. She has been in office ever since.
Burke was replaced on the board in 2008 with the election of Mark Ridley-Thomas, also African American and also a former LA City Council member. With his election, the former state Senator and Assembly member remains the first and only African-American man to serve on the board.
In other seats, Dana retired in 1996 and was replaced in the District 4 seat that year by Don Knabe, Dana’s longtime friend and former chief of staff, who won election to the position. Ed Edelman was replaced in the board’s District 3 seat in 1994 by Zev Yaroslavsky, also a former LA Council member, when Edelman, himself a former council member, did not seek re-election after 20 years on the board. Today, the longest serving supervisor is Mike Antonovich, who’s represented District 5 since 1982.
With 2002’s Measure B, which passed with 63 percent of the vote that year, supervisors are now limited to serving three consecutive four-year terms. This means Molina and Yaroslavsky will be termed out of office in 2014, and Antonovich will be forced to step down in 2016 after 34 years in office — six years shy of tying Kenny Hahn’s record.
By comparison, the LA City Council, representing 3.8 million people, has an elected mayor and 15 members — a citizen-to-councilperson ratio of 252,000 to 1. Even the city of Pasadena, with roughly 140,000 people, has seven council members and an elected mayor.
Then there is the 13-member Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Board of Directors, which looks, acts and sounds democratic but actually consists of the mayor of the city of LA, the five supervisors, the mayor’s respective appointments, city council members from communities most affected by the mass transit system and one non-voting appointment of the governor. Few activists, business leaders or mere citizens have been members of this important powerful body. The MTA is but one of many such boards that make monumental decisions, recommend spending lots of money and forward critical recommendations to other governing boards, yet are populated by nothing but already elected officials, who are paid stipends and other perks for their “extra service.”
Shouldn’t members of these boards — especially the Metro board, which is presently deciding whether to connect the 210 and 710 freeways with multibillion-dollar, 4.5-mile-long traffic tunnels underneath parts of Pasadena — be responsible to the electorate for their actions in these extra-legislative capacities? These current members may be elected officials elsewhere, but no one voted for them to do these other jobs. Exactly how inclusive or democratically representative is that?
For that matter, to use the Times’ rationale, why not make all top leadership jobs in county departments — public works, education, health and welfare, the register recorder and registrar of voters, which are also susceptible to undue influence by supervisors and others — elected positions?
After all, the question is not whether to increase democracy. That should be everyone’s goal. The question is how to use the instruments of democracy that we have available to make our present system stronger, more inclusive and representative, and better.
And while we’re on the subject of making government more accountable and increasing opportunities for people to participate in the workings our present democratic system, why is there no appointed or elected citizens’ panel overseeing the Sheriff’s Department, much like the one that watches over the LAPD?
Answer: Unlike the Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD chief is hired by the mayor, with the approval of the City Council, not elected. The mayor also appoints members to the Board of Police Commissioners, which “serves as the head of the Los Angeles Police Department, functioning like a corporate board of directors, setting policies for the department and overseeing its operations. The board works in conjunction with the chief of police, who acts as a chief executive officer,” and reports to the board’s five civilian members, according the LAPD Web site.
The LAPD also has an independent inspector general’s office, a Christopher Commission reform recommendation in 1991, which reports directly to the citizens’ board on such things as misconduct, use of force and officer-involved shootings. No such office, except Baca’s OIR, which serves more as a tool of remediation than prosecution, exists to keep an eye on the Sheriff’s Department. There is no appointed or elected citizens’ board in Pasadena overseeing that city’s Police Department either, though there have been sporadic calls for the formation of such a body in the years since the riots. Also unlike the sheriff, in Pasadena, the chief of police is hired by the city manager.
On the upside, though, among the 77 recommended reform measures recommended by the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, one calls for the hiring of an expert on maintaining people in custody and another suggests appointing an inspector general, much like the LAPD’s — and both proposals have been enthusiastically supported by Baca.
Don’t count on it
They say out of crisis grows opportunity, and perhaps that’s how time will treat the abominable situation in our county jails and the Noguez affair, still under investigation, as Noguez (whose name is really Juan Reynaldo Rodriguez, unbeknownst to most people, including voters) heads to trial. But good things will come of them only if they spark substantive democratic reforms which turn up the volume on long-marginalized citizen voices instead of stifling them further by incumbent officeholders’ clinging to antiquated political ideas and counterproductive election practices.
But in LA County’s ossified political system of exclusivity, privilege and patronage — which the Times calls “hybrid,” but seems more like a type of medieval oligarchy dressed up in modern democratic clothing — don’t count on it. As we’ve seen, carefully cultivated power once placed in the hands of the favored few is only relinquished with great care, caution and, on rare occasions, struggle, no matter who’s in charge, what party they belong to or how they got where they’re at.