Is L.A. area big enough for two mayors?

A plan to let voters elect a county mayor aims for greater accountability, but critics see more bureaucracy.

With 9.8 million people, Los Angeles County has a population larger than that of 42 states. And the county's $21 billion budget is roughly equal to the United Nations' outlay for all its agencies and funds.

Some observers – including at least one on the five-member Board of Supervisors that oversees the behemoth county – say the governing structure of Los Angeles County is amorphous and often dysfunctional. Their idea for promoting more accountability: allow voters to elect a mayor of Los Angeles County.

That person would oversee the nation's largest county – a county holding the city of L.A. ... which already has a mayor.

A second mayor would bring the accountability needed to run the county's unwieldy bureaucracy – and provide the authority to get more things done, proponents say. Critics say the idea could throw a monkey wrench into the politics of America's second-largest city and an OK-Corral-style standoff on whether the region "is big enough" for two top leaders.

Proposal's sponsor

The proposal is being floated by current board member Zev Yaroslavsky, who is one of five supervisors – all equal in power – representing a different geographic region of the county. He expects to introduce it soon.

"The people of the county are entitled to have one person they elect to hold accountable for the performance of the county," Mr. Yaroslavsky said at a Nov. 16 luncheon with business leaders. "Our 100,000 employees are entitled to know who their boss is. They have five bosses now, with their five points of view, very often different points of view on the same issue."

Yaroslavsky's remarks came in the context of a local management crisis in a county hospital, according to the supervisor's spokesman, Joel Bellman. Debate has been raging for months since a Los Angeles Times investigative series exposed poor medical care at the Martin Luther King-Drew Medical Center, a county-run hospital in a poorer section of the city.

Could county mayor provide accountability?

The proposal has revived discussion about how L.A. County could better serve its population, including whether a county mayor or chief executive by another name would promote or hinder more accountable government.

Also up for debate is whether a charter amendment needed to make such a change should come to voters via approval by the Board of Supervisors or through a ballot initiative.

Many experts say it is a proposal whose time has come. "It's a good idea," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "The [current] five-member board acts as a de facto executive, and as Alexander Hamilton reminded us ... a plural executive is seldom a good idea.... It tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility...."

Others concur with Dr. Pitney's assessment. Los Angeles County governance "is currently really suffering from five equal people. No one person can speak for the county, and all five have diverse voices and represent their own districts. No one is accountable to the entire county," says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies.

Pitney, Mr. Stern, and others say an L.A. County mayor would direct more public attention to county issues, which they say are eclipsed by coverage of the city's mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

Yaroslavsky's proposal is a variation on other mayor or county-chief-executive ideas, which, in past years, have failed to win approval either by supervisors or voters. Key elements include a county mayor, or chief executive of some other name, with the power to hire and fire department heads, propose budgets, and veto board decisions, in much the same manner of most city mayors and state governors. Under this plan, the city of Los Angeles would continue to have its own mayor and separate governing structure.

'Another fiefdom'?

Critics of the idea include antitax groups and the county League of Women Voters, who both say it would bring another level of bureaucracy and would be more costly.

"It sounds good, but when you look at it, it's just another fiefdom," says Lola Ungar, president of the L.A. County League of Women Voters. Each of the current supervisors has a staff of about 25 people, and the "mayor" position is likely to include that many or more. "Where would the money come for this?" she asks. "We are already dealing with economic problems in healthcare, foster care, welfare, and other areas – adding more people wouldn't help the mix."

Accountability doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with a single executive, adds Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "County governments exist to implement state programs – courts, jails, welfare, those kinds of things," he says. "The notion of a strong mayor for the county is not one which seems to make sense in the sense of those conventional duties."

There are also suspicions that Yaroslavsky is pushing the plan because he is subject to term limits, and will be out of office by 2014. Yaroslavsky, who served on the L.A. City Council for 19 years before becoming a county supervisor in 1994, says he would be "perfectly happy" never being county mayor.

If the plan were adopted, L.A. County would be the second among the state's 58 counties to have an elected county executive. San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, is the first. A number of East Coast counties have elected chief executives, including Dade County in Florida.

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