UNINCORPORATED LA COUNTY — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors have unanimously approved a motion to take steps towards fundamental reform, including campaign finance transparency and expanding the board size. Historically, boards have attempted reform once a generation or so, but have been unsuccessful at significant change. Activists across the county are advocating to make the Board more representative and accessible, especially for communities in unincorporated areas. 

The motion directs county staff to identify a third party to assist in reviewing the “Board’s governance model” and bring recommendations on how to reform the Board. The requested recommendations include expanding the Board to reduce the number of people each supervisor represents, identifying a public review process for motions before submission to the board; campaign finance reforms, including the feasibility of publicly funded campaigns; and suggested amendments to the Brown Act. For unincorporated communities who do not have an established city government, reform could allow them to better advocate for policies and lobby for resources.

Supervisors Holly Mitchell (2nd District) and Lindsey Horvath (3rd District) sponsored the motion at the Feb. 28 regular meeting. The 2nd District includes the communities of South LA, Inglewood, and Compton. Whereas, the 3th District includes West Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, and Malibu.

Supervisor Holly Mitchell at a Board meeting, from the livestream.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell at a Board meeting, from the livestream.

With only five supervisors in a county of 10 million people, each supervisor represents about 2 million constituents who come from diverse communities with different needs. Expanding the board would allow for smaller districts where the supervisors could be more accessible to their constituents and focus on their specific needs. Supervisor Janice Hahn represents the Fourth District, which includes cities as varied as Palos Verdes Estates where the median household income is $202,569 and Cudahy where the median household income is $47,050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Also, in a county where 49% of the population is Latino, only one seat on the board is occupied by a Latina. 

“I don’t think people understand how much power [the Board of Supervisors] actually wield over all these areas and how much control they have,” said Oscar Zarate, director of building equity and transit at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and resident of unincorporated Walnut Park in Southeast Los Angeles County (SELA).

The Board has executive, legislative, and quasi-judicial roles. Unlike the federal government, where the three branches of government exist to balance power, all power is vested on the board. They also set the county’s budget, which was $44.6 billion in the fiscal year 2022-2023 budget, larger than the GDP of countries like Paraguay and Bolivia

The last attempt to expand the Board was in 2017, when the state legislature considered putting Senate Constitutional Amendment 12 to a referendum. The amendment would have expanded the LA County Board from five to seven and turned the role of chief executive officer into an elected position. However, the proposed legislation did not make it to the ballot.   

In 2014, then-State Senator Alex Padilla (now one of California’s U.S. Senators) sponsored Senate Bill 1365, which would have allowed judges to expand local governing bodies in California, including the Board of Supervisors. The proposal elaborated on the concept present in the California Voting Rights Act (2001) that minorities have a right to elect candidates of their choice and it is unlawful to conduct district elections in a way that weakens their vote. Under that logic judges would have had the power to expand local boards and legislative bodies to ensure minorities are appropriately represented. The bill was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. 

The last significant reform that actually passed was in 2002. Measure B amended the LA County Charter establishing term limits of three consecutive four-year terms. The decision was made by county voters with 64% voting in favor.  

This new round of reform efforts will attempt to explore ways where the county can be more transparent about their policy making process.

“We need an overall review of our governance structure to make public engagement more accessible, not just expand the number of people who serve on the board,” said Mitchell. 

What other reforms are the Supervisors considering?

Among the reforms, the Board is looking for ways to support the legislature in updating the  Brown Act, a state law which requires governing bodies to conduct any actions or discussions in the open. At the beginning of the pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide state of emergency, which suspended some of the Brown Act requirements and allowed public agencies to meet remotely. The Board conducts weekly meetings on Tuesdays at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles, where they vote on motions and hold hearings on issues that affect the entire county. It can be difficult for many residents who live or work far from the area to participate in the meetings in person. Amending the Brown Act may permanently allow the Board and other agencies to conduct their meetings in a hybrid setting and residents to participate remotely. 

The county will also look at ways to facilitate working class people’s interest in running for office through programs like publicly financed elections. Running for office can feel intimidating and out of our reach. Extending such resources may reduce barriers for people who do not have the financial resources to independently finance a campaign for office. Additionally, the county will analyze ways of adjusting contribution limits and reviewing campaign finance ethics to ensure that special interests with large donations are not making their way into policy making.  

“Big power interests have a lot of sway, because they have a lot of money,” said Zarate. “If we want to truly have a democracy that is not tainted by special interests we have to look at campaign finance.” 

This is the second time that Mitchell and Horvath put forth a motion for reform in recent months. They sponsored a similar motion at the Jan. 24 meeting, but that motion failed with only the two sponsors voting in favor. There was not much conversation at the meeting as to why the other supervisors voted against it. 

“I think there was a lack of time for supervisors to vet it and understand what was in it,” said Hahn in an interview. 

A competing motion sponsored by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Hahn was also discussed at the Feb. 28 meeting. That motion would have asked county counsel to report back with options on the narrow question of board expansion, and would not have required the more thorough process and consideration of broader reforms which the winning motions does. It failed on a 2–3 vote, with only the sponsors’ support.

Solis declined our request for an interview. 

“I am clear that I’m the first line of local government for unincorporated communities,” said Mitchell. “And so I have an obligation to provide them that front and center service.”

There are 88 incorporated cities in LA County, each with its own city council. The areas not part of these cities are unincorporated county territory. More than 65% of the territory of LA County is unincorporated, with approximately one million people living in these areas. Unincorporated areas range from Hi Vista out in the desert to Catalina Island in the Pacific Ocean.

There is often confusion as to whether someone might live in an unincorporated area. In many places, there are no street signs that distinguish unincorporated from incorporated, and the mailing addresses of the residents of unincorporated areas commonly give the adjacent city, causing more confusion. 

Estefany Castañeda is an elected member of the Centinela Valley High School District Board of Trustees, and a resident of unincorporated Lennox. She was born in Inglewood and raised in Lennox, a 1.1 square mile unincorporated district surrounded by the cities of Los Angeles, Inglewood, and Hawthorne. During the 2016 presidential election, she was motivated to become involved in her community by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign. 

A sign made of tile in unincorporated Walnut Park.
A sign made out of tile in unincorporated Walnut Park on March 17 (Ashley Orona / Los Angeles Public Press)

“I was like, whoa, these issues that are being talked about nationally resonate with me at a hyperlocal level in my community,” said Castañeda. 

As she began looking into who her local elected leaders were and issues that impacted her community, she realized she lives in unincorporated Lennox. Growing up, she had believed she lived in the city of Inglewood because her mailing address says Inglewood. For a long time, she did not understand the difference of living in an unincorporated area, she said. 

“There hasn’t been transparency and clarity as to what our boundaries are and who we belong to in terms of leadership and what the process is to access that leadership,” said Castañeda.

For unincorporated communities, reform is especially important because the Board is solely responsible for creating policies that impact them, unlike incorporated cities that have a city council and can create their own laws. Many residents of unincorporated areas have difficulty identifying which county departments have jurisdiction. Moreover, some unincorporated communities do not have direct access to county personnel where they live, because many do not have constituent service centers. They often have to travel to a neighboring city or downtown Los Angeles to connect with county employees.

“There’s just this notion that the unincorporated areas are like a wild west,” said Zarate.

Through his role as SAJE, Zarate works with tenants informing them about their rights and assistance programs available to them. For tenants in unincorporated communities, whose landlords fail to provide a habitable home, making a request to the LA County Department of Public Health for a health inspection can be difficult. 

“These are big agencies that are doing so much and it can be hard to have the specific help that some people need,” said Zarate.

Many unincorporated communities such as Lennox, Walnut Park, East LA, and Florence-Firestone are historically underserved. These communities have experienced discriminatory housing practices such as redlining that resulted in long-term inequality. Following white flight, many corporations closed their businesses in these areas causing disinvestment in these communities. A series of events such as the 1965 Watts Uprising and 1970 Chicano Moratorium March left lasting impacts on these predominantly Black and Latino communities. Everyone deserves a seat at the table when decisions are made that impact their livelihood, especially communities that have historically been left out of these conversations. 

“I’m hopeful,” said Zarate. “There’s no harm in exploring these conversations [about reform] and having them out in the open.”

Ashley Orona is a journalist and community organizer from South Central Los Angeles. She loves spending time with her family, supporting local businesses, and finding new scenic views around LA.