LA County Board of Supervisors debate lacks spirit

Walking away from a debate featuring the candidates for Los Angeles County supervisor last week, I was mad. Why would four smart candidates skate around the county’s terrible problems of homelessness, mental illness and an out-of-control sheriff’s department?

John Duran, Sheila Kuehl, Bobby Shriver and Pamela Conley Ulich only touched on such subjects in their 90-minute meeting at UCLA on March 20. I was aware these subjects don’t resonate in upscale Westwood, but they go to the heart of Los Angeles County governance, and they deserved a more intense and deep exploration.

These candidates are competing to represent the 3rd District on the five-member Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. It’s a district representing 2 million people spread out across 431 square miles, from Los Angeles’ Westside through the Santa Monica Mountains, into the San Fernando Valley and eastward toward Glendale; it contains communities as affluent as Brentwood and Encino as well as the working-class community of Panorama City. Most areas, however, are not poor. Its residents dealing with social ills may be limited to those who quietly and privately confront, without county help, immediate family or friends suffering from addiction or mental illness. Surface street and freeway traffic is a more immediate general concern for most of this district’s constituents.

That fact was acknowledged a few years ago, when the current 3rd District supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, who is being termed out, spoke at a meeting of affluent Malibu homeowners. As related to me by my friend Bob Stern, who was at the meeting, Yaroslavsky noted that his audience wasn’t much affected by the social problems occupying much of his time and that of his four fellow county supervisors. Nevertheless, he spent 15 minutes talking to the crowd about the county’s ills anyway. “He wanted to educate us,” Stern said.

There’s much to be educated about.

The sheriff’s department’s recent failings range from beatings and other misconduct in the jail, to cover-ups and special favors to team players, to racist behavior in the Antelope Valley.

Almost 60,000 homeless live scattered around Los Angeles County and are suffering from deep-rooted social afflictions. This population is composed, for the most part, of addicts, the mentally disturbed and those impoverished by the recession, who are still unable to climb back into the diminished work force. Beyond the homeless mentally ill, there are thousands more denied care in the few remaining state mental hospitals who are seeking treatment in clinics run by the county. 

Adding to the number of mentally ill and addicts living on the streets is the daily release of such people from the overcrowded county jail. It’s all wrapped up in one neat, bleak and so far insoluble package, which should have been worthy of the deep consideration of the four candidates who gathered to debate on the UCLA stage.

Shriver, a former Santa Monica councilman and mayor, and Kuehl, a state legislator for 14 years, are favored as the top two finishers in the June 3 primary election. Both are well-acquainted with the social issues they would confront as supervisors. Shriver has stood up for better treatment of the homeless in Santa Monica, a city with more than its share of homelessness, and for creating residential facilities for homeless veterans on the Veteran Administration’s big West Los Angeles campus. Kuehl supports that, too, and has also provided state funds for homeless projects in Santa Monica. 

Duran is well-acquainted with the sheriff’s department’s problems from his years in city government in West Hollywood, where the department had a bad reputation for rough policing in the gay community until the deputies were forced to drop their brutal tactics. Representing Malibu, Ulich hasn’t had to deal with such issues, although she will learn about them soon enough if she wins.

Perhaps the format didn’t allow the candidates enough time to build steam, but if any of them offered a strong analysis of these social issues or pointed toward ways to improve conditions, I missed it. 

They did note, however, that the sheriff, an elected official, has command of the department, and the supervisors have little authority over the day-to-day operations of the department. Sheriff Lee Baca, who recently retired under fire, will be replaced in the same election.

Yet, the supervisors appropriate the sheriff’s department’s funds, and the candidates agreed they could use that power to influence policy and officers’ conduct. But they were all so bureaucratic and cautious in how they spoke about this that I scrawled in my notebook, “What about the victims?”

What I came hoping for was a strong — even emotional — analysis of how all these issues — the sheriff debacle, helping the mentally ill, tackling homelessness — are related, and I was hoping for some concrete proposals of what should be done. Supervisors have a pulpit and access to the media, should they want to use it for a deserving, even if unpopular, cause. Take, for example, the sheriff. They could overwhelm a recalcitrant sheriff, if they had the guts to try. As I left, I wondered, as the saying goes, “Where’s the outrage?”

The only disagreement that evening was between Shriver and Kuehl over campaign contributions. Shriver is an affluent member of the Kennedy family and well-connected to the Westside’s wealthy. Kuehl, while not bestowed with Kennedy wealth, is a longtime pol who is also well-connected, and she’s a good fundraiser. Both are favored because of their access to money. Hopefully, the campaign won’t become just an expensive, simplistic, made-for-television affair, with Shriver and Kuehl spending millions for commercials accusing one another of trying to buy the election. 

That’s the kind of campaign that might get the attention of uninvolved voters. But it wouldn’t help the county much. It would be better if the candidates looked to the last two supervisors for inspiration: Yaroslavsky and his predecessor, Ed Edelman, who reminded the 3rd District’s well-off of their obligations to the less fortunate.