Expanding county supervisor boards: What exactly are we trying to solve?

by John Moorlach
Sunday, November 20, 2016

Also published at the Orange County Register

There’s a basic truth worth remembering whenever someone proposes new legislation: What problem is it attempting to solve? This political guidepost came to mind in the last session when reviewing State Constitutional Amendment 8, which would have forced several counties in California to increase the number of seats on their boards of supervisors.

When I first became a state senator last year, I made a disappointing observation, which has remained both consistently and inconveniently true. Sacramento appears to enjoy meddling in the affairs of counties and cities. This was especially true of SCA 8, which would have affected Orange County and four or five of California’s more populous counties.

SCA 8 would have forced those counties, determined after the 2020 Census to have populations exceeding 2 million residents, to increase the number of elected supervisors on county boards from five to seven members. On its face, SCA 8 might appear noble, but the effort comes with little knowledge of the nuances that can only be understood by one who has served on a county board. As a former member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, I speak to this with first-hand knowledge.

As I testified in opposition to SCA 8 on the Senate Floor on September 10, 2015, any county that wants to expand its board can already do so through amending its own charter by an initiative. SCA 8 failed to garner enough votes.

Please bear in mind that to the best of my knowledge, no members of the public, from Orange County or elsewhere, have requested assistance from Sacramento when it comes to determining how many board members are needed to best represent their diverse interests.

Further, legal mechanisms are already in place to expand the size of county boards should the need arise. The public, via the initiative process, can put the question of representation on the ballot. Orange County attempted this with Measure U in 1996. It attempted to expand our board from five to nine members. It failed. Voters realized that, even immediately after the Orange County bankruptcy, a larger board size would have made little to no difference.

Even though SCA 8 was set aside during this past legislative session, Sacramento’s curiosity, or meddling, in how county governments run their own business is still very much alive in Sacramento. In recent days, a joint hearing of the Senate Committees on Governance and Finance and Elections and Constitutional Amendments was convened to question the size of county boards of supervisors, among other issues. Do not be surprised if the hearing leads to new (and expensive) proposals to mandate how county governments manage themselves when lawmakers return to Sacramento next year.

Again, these top-down efforts appear to be both unwelcome and unnecessary.

Traditionally, when county populations grow sufficiently to make representation difficult, the solution has been to split off new counties from existing ones. In fact, the formation of Orange County, as well as Imperial and Kings counties, took place under existing legal mechanisms, which included a vote of the people.

If population is truly a concern, then why isn’t there a State Constitutional Amendment to merge smaller counties? Sacramento would be doing these counties a favor. Alpine County has as many residents as does Sunset Beach. It has its own elected sheriff and district attorney. That’s a lot of infrastructure for 1,200 people.

Perhaps minimum populations should be reviewed. Then, SCA 8 wouldn’t look like an attempt to create places for termed-out legislators to land.

SCA 8 is exactly what meddling looks like. It’s an unwelcome and unnecessary cram-down solution when other alternatives already exist.