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LA County 101: The Basics

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Everywhere I go, when I tell people I’m running for Los Angeles County Supervisor in 2014, they ask, “What do Supervisors do?” and, “What does the County do?”

Conclusion: Although the County level of government is tasked with actually implementing virtually every state and federal program, as well as county initiatives—health, welfare, foster kids, juvenile incarceration, the courts, child care, some aspects of education, transportation, environmental protection, housing, conservation, and a host of others–it is also the least known level of government.

What to do? Answer: write a series of essays on various aspects of Los Angeles County, in the hopes that folks interested in politics and public policy will enjoy knowing more about this interesting, huge and varied county.

Hence: LA County 101, a continuing series.

Counties in California
There are 58 counties in California with populations ranging from 1,175 people (Alpine County) to 9,818,605 people (guess which one).

Whether large or small, however, every county, with the exception of San Francisco, is governed by an elected, five-member, Board of Supervisors. San Francisco, being the only combined county/city government, has an eleven-member Board.

Unlike Congress, which is the legislative branch of the federal government, with the President as the Executive Officer, or the state of California, where the Assembly and the Senate are the legislative branch, and the Governor serves as Executive Officer, the County form of government is more like a Parliament.

The Supervisors in Los Angeles and all other counties, with the exception of San Francisco, are both the executive and the legislative branches of government, with no Executive Officer to veto or sign bills. San Francisco, again, is the exception, as it has a Mayor, who comprises the Executive branch with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors serving as the legislative branch.

Los Angeles County has a Chief Executive Officer, who serves at the will of the Supervisors and oversees almost all County Departments.

Supervisors also serve as the city government for those portions of the county that have not been incorporated into any city. In Los Angeles County, over a million people live in these unincorporated areas.

The Past
The County of Los Angeles was formally established on February 18, 1850, as one of the original 27 counties. This incorporation actually occurred several months before California was admitted to the union. 377 people voted to establish a three-man Court of Sessions, which served to govern the new county. In 1852, the State Legislature dissolved the Court of Sessions and created a five-member Board of Supervisors. On April 4, 1850, the City of Los Angeles became the very first city to incorporate with the County and officially carved itself off a big slice of County.

During its history, the size of the County has changed considerably. Originally, it encompassed 4,340 square miles along the coast between Santa Barbara and San Diego. In time, it grew to 34,520 square miles and reached all the way east to the Colorado River. Then it was divided up—three times—so that Kern County received a large slice in 1851, San Bernardino split off in 1853 and Orange County was established in 1889.

Today the County is a fixed 4,084 square miles and counts 88 cities within its boundaries. The last city to incorporate was the City of Calabasas, which became a city on April 5, 1991. Interestingly, the Third Supervisorial District of Los Angeles County, the seat for which I’m running, represents a piece of Los Angeles City and all of Calabasas—the oldest and the newest cities in the county.

On November 5, 1912, voters in the county approved a charter county form of government with a five-member Board. Supervisors are elected to serve four-year terms in elections that alternate every two years. The Supervisors adopted term limits in 2002 restricting their service to three four-year terms, which is why Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina are both termed out in 2014. Under the alternating system, Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe are termed out in 2016. Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was elected when Yvonne Brathwaite Burke left office in 2008, can serve until 2020.

Next: The Highs and Lows of Altitude and Our Place In The World

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