Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
November 14, 2016 – 12:01 AM

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg puts it succinctly, albeit accurately: “58 counties in California are accidents of history.”

Hertzberg, a Los Angeles Democrat, uttered his comment last month during a pithy, if sparsely attended, legislative hearing into the shortcomings of county governments.

As California’s population expanded in the late 19th century, it was divided, and redivided into 58 counties, then the state’s fundamental local governments.

The counties’ populations now range from 1,200 in Alpine County to over 10 million in Los Angeles – more than all but seven states – and except for the city and county of San Francisco, all have five-member boards of supervisors.

Counties also evolved from purely local governments into, primarily, agents of state and federal governments in dispensing health and welfare services and the conflicts between those two roles are one aspect of their shortcomings.

County supervisors’ constituents are mostly interested in local services such as roads, sheriff’s patrols and fire protection, but mandates of state and federal overseers take precedence.

Having five-member boards without an elected administrator is another impediment. Zev Yaroslavsky, a retired Los Angeles supervisor, said that getting a majority board vote on even routine executive issues creates “less precise decisions,” and big issues can take years to resolve.

“When everyone’s in charge, no one is in charge,” said retired Los Angeles County administrator David Janssen.

“It’s the worst form of government, unless you are one of the five,” Yaroslavsky said. Likening counties to the Soviet Union, he added, “Our system is ultimately going to collapse of its own dead weight.”

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