LA County supervisors race: 6 key questions facing Kuehl, Shriver (and voters)

Sheila Kuehl is running to replace Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Sheila Kuehl is running to replace Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Sheila Kuehl is running to replace Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Bobby Shriver is running for a seat on the powerful LA County Board of Supervisors.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Former State Senator Sheila Kuehl and former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver both want to to replace County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

You may think you don't care about this political race, but take a minute to look a little closer.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors wields tremendous power. The board oversees a $26 billion budget and more than 100,000 county employees -- including sheriff’s deputies, foster care workers, and public hospital doctors and nurses. Its decisions affect more than ten million county residents.

Only five people sit on the county board, which serves as not only a legislative body (setting policy) but also as an executive panel (overseeing how county departments implement those policies).

Yaroslavsky, who has served as supervisor since 1994, can't run again because of term limits. His Third District includes Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood and most of the San Fernando Valley. 

Here are the key issues that the new supervisor will face, and a look at how Kuehl and Shriver may approach them. Their differences are sometimes clear, but more often nuanced. Nonetheless, they provide clues as to how they would govern.

1. Caring for foster kids:

In April, a Blue Ribbon Commission said the county's foster care system was in a "state of emergency.” The system cares for more than 26,000 kids at any given time. The panel recommended creating a new Office of Child Protection.

One key question facing the next board is how much authority to give the new foster care chief. Shriver says the new czar should be able to give direction to the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Mental Health, which also deals with foster kids.  “I’m generally in favor of taking authority away from the supervisors and giving it more to the staff,” Shriver says. “It leads to better staff people.”

Kuehl isn't so sure. She says there are a lot of politics to take into account before you create another level of bureaucracy. “I want to have the czar have the ability to bring these people together and make this plan work,” she says. But she adds: “I think its going to be difficult for whoever is at the DCFS, who will feel that (the czar is) digging into his bailiwick.”

   2. Funding transportation:

The next Board of Supervisors must decide whether to place a measure on the ballot extending the half-cent sales tax to fund mass transportation projects -- often called the Son of Measure “R”. Kuehl and Shriver both support the effort, and promise to include funding for a rail line that would run from the San Fernando Valley to LAX and more shuttles connecting neighborhoods to rail lines. The measure would require two-thirds voter approval.

Each member of the board also sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the two differ on the extension of the $6.2 billion Purple Line to Westwood. Shriver says the MTA’s approved route under Beverly Hills High School is a done deal, and has accused Kuehl of endangering federal funding by telling a Beverly Hills newspaper that she’d be open to slightly changing the route. “She is now talking about a few feet” change, Shriver says. “But that’s a change from the things she said that got her the endorsement of the newspaper.”

Kuehl says she would do nothing to endanger funding, and wants only to find a way to resolve lawsuits against the route. “Is there a way to…make those lawsuits go away, and finish this line a year sooner?”

   3. Storm water pollution:

Nearly 100 million gallons of contaminated water and debris flow through storm drains each day, according to the county Department of Public Works. That’s on dry days. Rainy days increase the flow to 10 billion gallons. Every year more than 500,000 children and adults contract a gastrointestinal disease after swimming at area beaches and lakes. Federal courts have ruled the county and cities must clean up this water. The cost will run at least $17 billion dollars, according to county officials.

A key question for the county board is how to raise the money. Kuehl says she’s reluctant to revive a controversial plan to charge property owners a fee. “Homeowners were feeling really beleaguered about having yet another tax,” she tells KPCC. The one-time chair of the state Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee suggested bonds might be better -- all county residents would shoulder the burden. “I think the answer is going to be bonds,” she says, adding that funding could come from federal and state sources too.

Shriver, on the other hand, is comfortable with taxing residential and commercial property owners to clean water runoff. In fact, he supported such a plan for Santa Monica when he was a councilman there. He also remains open to different funding options. “I’d have to study it,” Shriver says.

   4. Affordable housing and homeless veterans:

LA has the most renters in the U.S. (52 percent of the population rents) and the least affordable rents (an astounding one-third of renters spend more than half their income on rent). The county board receives millions in state “boomerang" funds -- money once dedicated for affordable housing through now defunct community redevelopment agencies.

Asked how much of that money should go to affordable housing, Shriver said 100 percent. Kuehl said “at least 40 percent,” noting that’s a higher percentage than redevelopment agencies spent in the past.

It should be noted that one of Shriver’s signature issues is helping homeless veterans. If elected, he says he’d use the power of the office to force the West LA Veterans Affairs campus to provide more housing. “I am going to jump up and down until that supportive housing is built for vets,” he tells KPCC. Kuehl also has said she also supports more housing for vets at the West LA center.

   5. Jobs and the LA Economy:

One of the more telling moments of the campaign to date was when Shriver and Kuehl disagreed during a debate about whether Nevada should have given Tesla Motors $1.3 billion dollars in tax credits as an incentive for the company to build its new battery plan in the state. Shriver, who is endorsed by the LA Area Chamber of Commerce and most other business groups, calls it a “missed opportunity for California” because the plant is expected to create 6,500 new jobs.

He shrugged off critics who say Nevada overpaid for Tesla, noting battery technology is a fast growing market likely to provide unknowable dividends for Nevada. “When you’re buying the right thing, its impossible to overpay.”

Kuehl wonders aloud if Nevada would have been better off hiring 6,500 government workers. “The creation of private sector jobs is thought to be a great panacea for the economy,” she says. Creating government jobs gets a bad rap, she says, but  “good (public) jobs have good benefits and possibly pay a little bit of pension.”

6. Expanding the Board of Supervisors:

Each of the five supervisors represents approximately 2.1 million residents. Currently, three white men, one African American man and one Latina sit on the board - in a county that’s half Latino and 15% Asian. Civil rights activists say a good way to diversify the board and improve representation is to increase its size to seven or nine members.

Shriver supports such an expansion. “In the Northeast San Fernando Valley, a lot of Latino folks feel there should be a Latino district carved out there,” he says. “The more people have contact with their elected officials, the better.”

Kuehl says any lack of Latinos and Asians on the board is not because of its size. “The question is, is the community organizing? Is it running people?” She also argues that a bigger board means a bigger bureaucracy. “If you have more people on a board, you need more offices, more staff, more support and I don’t really know what you get.” To be sure, each of the four ballot measures to expand the board over the last 50 years has failed by a two to one margin.

It should be noted that the next supervisor will also be faced with key questions about how to reform the troubled Sheriff's Department. Both candidates have expressed support for a Citizen's Commission to oversee the agency.

Who's got the best experience?

Kuehl and Shriver each argue their experiences have better prepared them to serve on the county board.

Kuehl, 73, was a woman’s rights activist and lawyer who served 14 years in the state Legislature,including stints as chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. She was the first openly gay member of the legislature. Kuehl says her deep understanding of state law would serve her well. Counties are responsible for implementing a wide range of state mandates and delivering a wide range of services.

“I think that’s where I have an advantage,” Kuehl says. "I've got the ability to hit the ground running.”

Shriver, 60, has played a key role in third world debt relief and helped persuade Congress and then-President Bush to allocate $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa. But he argues his work as a Santa Monica city councilman and mayor best prepared him to be a county supervisor. “Its a local government job,” he says. “Its not a Sacramento-based job. It requires people to go out into the communities and work with city councils, which I have done. She has not done that.”

The nephew of President John F. Kennedy, whose father started the Peace Corp and mother started Special Olympics, Shriver says he wouldn’t hesitate to use his well heeled connections for help with county problems. “I’d pick up the phone.”

Kuehl says she has worked with local communities and compares Shriver to his ex-brother-in-law, former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had never served in government before. “Its possible that what he doesn't know is kinda the same as Arnold,” Kuehl says. “Arnold did not know what he was doing, and he took the state into the garbage.”

Most labor unions have endorsed Kuehl. The LA Area Chamber of Commerce supports Shriver.

One observer says its too bad voters can’t have both Kuehl and Shriver. “The ideal would be a mash up,” says Jack Pitney of the Claremont School of Government. “They both have good resumes.”