August 30, 1995 - From the August, 1995 issue

Exit Interview With Ed Edelman: A Perspective On County Government

As the Board of Supervisors struggles to adopt a responsible budget requiring significantly reduced services throughout Los Angeles County, TPR presents an interview with Ed Edelman, recently retired from public office after 20 years as a County Supervisor and ten years as a member of the Los Angeles City Council. He has seen County government change dramatically, and offers his perspective on the difficulties faced by the current Board of Supervisors. Mr. Edelman left government to take on a new role as a private sector mediator/arbitrator, consultant, and Senior Fellow at RAND. 

In your opinion, how will the LA Board of Supervisors come to grips with the difficult choices it faces in balancing its fiscal and social responsibilities?

I think they face some tough choices. The state is no longer in a position to hand out cookies. The state is now taking those cookies back. What the counties principally need is a stable revenue source; they may have to enact a tax—the state won't do it for them; and the counties need to restore home rule. 

That was one of the problems I found terribly frustrating on the Board. I would be sitting there at budget hearings, and people from the libraries would come to the board room and complain about libraries being closed. County money for libraries is funded from property taxes, and when a substantial part of that money was taken by the State, we had to cut services. All of a sudden, we're the bad guys. We even tried to set up an assessment district, where we would pay for our libraries through self-taxation; the governor vetoed it—twice. 

The County is facing some troubling times, and it makes me sorry to say it, but the libraries are living on borrowed time. There is no question in my mind that we need to have home rule restored so that we have the power to raise the revenues that we need.

To give perspective to the difficulty of the Board's choices, how would you compare your last term as Supervisor with the early years of your tenure? 

The early years—I sometimes call them the golden years—were from 1974 to 1976. I call them golden because there was a lot of revenue flowing into the County from different sources: property tax, federal revenue sharing, and inflationary revenues. 

Contrast this with the last two years, when the revenue has been severely limited by reduced property taxes, Stare Government demands and a general downturn in the economy. Obviously it was easier to govern with more revenue than with less. 

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors has shifted from a republican majority during much of your tenure to essentially a democratic majority today. Would an average citizen in the County know the difference? 

The average citizen in the County is usually living with in a city's boundaries, and public services are usually provided by the municipality in which a citizen is living. Thus, citizens would probably notice it more if they were in the unincorporated areas. 

I think indirectly there is a difference, but by the time the liberals took over, with Gloria Molina's election in 1990, the lack of revenue pretty well crippled the style of the democratic majority. Things that might have made more of a difference in terms of visibility could not find funding. There were some policies that were put in place during the democratic majority, specifically programs for the homeless and AIDS education. However, the average citizen probably would not have noticed a significant difference. 

Increasingly, power is being delegated from the federal to state to local government. Given this devolution of power, what would you say about the continuing role and function of the County government in this metropolis? 

There is a need for County government, or some equivalent, to provide services. One of the concerns is about how we can make local government more independent and restore home rule, particularly at the County level. Another concern is the structure of the government, particularly given the number of special districts which are headed by elected officials. I don't see cities changing very much. I do however, see more discussion about changes in the County. 

There was a proposal by Senator Marian Bergesen (now an Orange County Supervisor), which would remove the County Board of Supervisors and have one elected executive manage the County. The County would only perform functions that relate to regional governance.

You tried several times to improve the structure of County government by promoting the election of a County Executive; but voters rejected such reform. What, today, would you recommend the State Constitutional Revision Commission do to reform County government? 

The Commission can recommend this change particularly for the urban counties in this state. An elected executive would handle the executive powers and allow the Supervisors to act as a legislative, as well as a constituent body. I would advise a separation of powers and an elected executive; I think this would help with the budget problems. I would also give urban counties better management and more clout in Washington D.C. and Sacramento. 

When supervisors have pet projects in their districts, it is difficult to develop an overall budgetary or fiscal perspective; I think an executive would help to do that. I have always believed that, and I tried twice to put that on the ballot. Neither time did it enjoy the public's support. 

What forces, utilizing what arguments, opposed the idea of a County Executive? 

We created the proposal so that staffs from the supervisors' offices and the CAO's office would be transferred to provide staff for the elected executive. Thus, the proposal would not have cost any money. Nevertheless, it was hard to get that message out; our opponents argued that it would cost the County more money than it would save. 

Unless there is a real crisis, it is hard to affect structural change in the Los Angeles City or County government. 

Let's turn to the new professional role that you've assumed in the private sector since leaving public office. Share with our readers what you're doing now.

I'm working as a mediator and arbitrator, trying to use whatever talents that I have to mediate or arbitrate disputes. The difference between the two is that in mediation, the parties have to make the decision. The mediator helps the parties reach the decision, but they ultimately have a choice in adopting or rejecting the decision. 

In arbitration I am called upon to make a decision for the parties involved. I felt that in my years on the Board and with the City, I spent a fair amount of time mediating disputes among elected officials and my colleagues. This was an area I wanted to see if I could continue in the private sector. 

In your 20 years on the Board of Supervisors, and 10 years with the Los Angeles City Council, give us some examples where mediation and arbitration outside the political arena would have been helpful. 

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With mediation, the parties control the decision, and know what the decision is—this is a plus. I've used mediation in the County, for example, during a dispute between cities and the County over who was responsible for caring for the homeless. The City of Los Angeles said that the County was responsible through general relief; the County said the City was responsible because it had torn down much of the affordable housing in downtown Los Angeles and hadn't rebuilt housing sufficient to house the now-homeless. I talked to the City Attorney, Jim Hahn, Mayor Bradley, and people from the City, and we resolved that dispute. In fact, that issue was resolved at the time the Board of Supervisors became a democratic majority. Instead of spending thousands of dollars for attorneys to have the City and County fight in court at the taxpayer's expense, we committed ourselves to jointly use some of that money to help the homeless. 

We now have a joint powers agreement. The City and County are working together, and it's going very well. That's just one example of how I helped to mediate a dispute, and deliver an outcome that was very favorable, and works. Both sides have to be willing to come to the table. When you have a successful mediation, you know what you will win and what you will lose because you are part of the decision. 

Another example is a land use matter, involving upper Topanga Canyon and one of the Disney heirs. The family interest wanted to develop some land in upper Topanga. They wanted to cover a pristine area of the upper Topanga Valley gateway with condominiums and a hotel. Most people in the area were opposed to the development. I became supervisor of this area after reapportionment, and I had to make a decision. 

I told the developer that he had to provide a development different from previous plans. Two days before the developer was to come before the Board of Supervisors to get his conditional use permit I drove up to upper Topanga to see the site again for myself. I decided that the best thing would be to see if we could get the beautiful and pristine land preserved. 

On the way back I got on my cellular phone and called the Conservancy, which had expressed some interest and previously had made a small offer. I asked the Conservancy if they were ready to make a serious offer, and that if they were, I would be willing to mediate the negotiations. I talked to the Disney people to see if they would come to the table and see if we could work out a way to resolve the issue before it came to the Board—if the decision came before the Board, the outcome would be uncertain. 

The following morning we met in my office and worked until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. We developed a lot of trust on both sides. The Conservancy wanted assurance that this wasn't a delaying tactic. I assured them; I told the Conservancy that if this deal fell through I was going to ask for a vote. Around 3:00 in the morning we reached a settlement. Under the terms of the agreement, all parties had to agree to the proposal before the Board met. 

We had a huge meeting; hundreds of people came down from upper Topanga to oppose the development. No one knew, not even my colleagues on the Board. We let the Conservancy take their vote at 10:30, and they approved the deal. I then announced the decision at the Supervisor's meeting, and you wouldn't have believed the reaction. People jumped out of their seats. We had a win-win-win situation. The developer won because he got paid a fair market value for the land; the homeowners won because their neighborhood has been preserved; the public won because magnificent open space has been saved for posterity. 

Too often, mediation is never tried. Through mediation you can resolve a lot of planning and land issues without getting into a legal context, where the issue suddenly becomes much more expensive and difficult. The legal arena is not suited for these issues. 

Let's turns to some of your views on land use and on government. What, in your opinion, is the relationship of land use policy to building a neighborhood?

There is a great synergy between the way land is allowed to be used, and the kind of community that develops. This is particularly true now that the lack of public funds don’t allow us to build all the infrastructure. Policy has to try and shape the development so that the people living there will have the benefit of some of the infrastructure that we used to take for granted. Often this cost is passed to the buyer, through Mello-Roos districts for schools, libraries and roads, just to name a few important public needs. I have long favored QUIMBY funds—to help get money set aside for recreation and open space. 

One of your appointees, George Lefcoe, is now Chair of the LA City Planning Commission. Can you give us some insight into how your appointee carried out your agenda when he served on the County Planning Commission? 

I tried to give George complete authority to make decisions. I felt that his judgment was good. He did excellent work, and kept the Commission moving in the right direction. He kept planning staff on their toes. 

I didn't always agree with every decision from the Planning Commission, but all 20 years I was on the Board, I made sure that there were good people on the Commission. 

What about the MTA? 

The MTA is a big organization, and it is in trouble. I was not wild about the merger. The County also lost a lot of power over the MTA. The County used to have five of seven seats on the old RTD Board, now it a five of thirteen. 

I think that the MTA needs to allow the general manager to manage. He isn't being allowed to manage; it's a tough board—he has 13 masters, each going in his own direction. I question the wisdom this new legislation that would make the board an elected board by districts. 

The public gets very little information on infrastructure investment in the region, and when it does, the information tends to be centered around individual abuse and negligence rather than institutional responsibility. What, in your opinion, does the voting public need to understand about the budgetary choices that are being made today? 

I think one of the problems is that we only read about the negative aspects of government. We never hear about the positive accomplishments—the work that goes on day-by-day without error; we only hear about the mistakes. We don't take pride in what the sanitation district is doing, for instance—things that are done every day to take care of our indirect needs. 

I think that it's a narrow view that we don't need to worry about infrastructure. Infrastructure does need to be addressed. Our problem is that we have enough trouble today funding current operations, and we sometimes forget about the need for infrastructure investment for the long term. We really need to push for public education about the need for infrastructure investment in our future. Without it we will suffer. 

Lastly, Ed, what would hope your legacy on the Board of Supervisors will be? 

I would hope that people would remember me for trying to increase the quality of life for everyone and improving the cultural arts environment. In my 20 years on the Board and in my 10 years in City Council, I tried to be an agent of change to make life better. 

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