Special to The Courier…
By John Mirisch
Last week’s election of our Metro Board representative would almost have to seem like inside baseball to most people not familiar with the process and/or the specifics of our Metro representation. I’m going to try to shed some light on the process and why the outcome of last week’s election in Carson – in which Inglewood Mayor James Butts was selected for a four year term to replace Santa Monica city councilmember Pam O’Connor — was a big win for both Beverly Hills and the entire region.
The Metro Board consists of 13 members: the 5 county supervisors, the mayor of Los Angeles and three of his appointees, as well as 4 representatives from the other 87 cities in the County. The City of Los Angeles has around 3.9 million inhabitants, while the rest of the County has about 6.2 million residents. The county is divided into four geographic areas; Beverly Hills belongs to the Southwest Corridor sub-region, which consists of 15 cities in the South Bay Council of Governments and 4 Westside cities (BH, WeHo, Santa Monica and Culver City).
Even with this most basic information, one can easily see that with its 3.9 million residents out of a population of over 10 million, Los Angeles is grossly over-represented on the Metro Board. In fact, the weighted vote of Los Angeles counts for almost 60% more than the weighted vote of the rest of the county (leaving out the supervisors, who are supposed to represent the entire county, including Los Angeles itself).
This systemic underrepresentation of the vast majority of residents in Los Angeles County quite naturally leads to a decision-making process within Metro which is by its very nature unfair. It also explains why many feel that Los Angeles tends to get more than its share of Metro money and transit projects – even beyond its size and physical layout – and why many of the smaller cities and various constituent groups are frustrated with Metro’s top-down arrogance.
Our sub-region has been represented for the past 13 years by O’Connor, who has never before faced a challenge. Serving on the Metro Board is a lot of work and I appreciate Pam’s willingness to serve for all those years.
But it was most certainly time for a change – for a number of reasons.
Regrettably, Pam was not a friend of Beverly Hills. She was dismissive of our concerns regarding the routing of the Purple Line and refused to even come visit the campus of Beverly Hills High School to see first-hand what the issues were. When we – the schools and City – reached a mediated settlement with the Federal Transportation Authority, the Department of Justice, and Metro senior staff, which would have ended all litigation, she refused to support the agreement, instead preferring continued litigation.
But beyond that, as several of our colleagues noted, Pam seemed more focused on carrying the water of Metro’s central bureaucracy than the entire sub-region she was supposed to represent. As I canvassed the cities in our sub-region over the past several weeks, I could tell that there was palpable frustration with the way the entire area had been represented. Pam remained vocally uncommitted to do anything about our collective disenfranchisement on the Metro Board. Other cities felt blown off, ignored or worse. The South Bay continues to be a “net donor” area, meaning they are paying more into the Metro pot than they are getting back in infrastructure. Quite simply, their transit needs are not being adequately met. This just isn’t fair, and after 13 years of a Westside Metro Board representative it was finally time for the South Bay to have a chance.
It is also very telling – though totally unsurprising – that O’Connor was supported by a cadre of entrenched interests who went out on a limb to support her. In the days before last week’s election, former county supervisor Yaroslavsky and other prominent local politicians made personal calls on O’Connor’s behalf to save “her” seat. But here’s the little thing they seemed to have forgotten: it isn’t “her” seat. It never was “her” seat. It’s our seat. The seat belongs to all of us in the sub-region.
In my comments at the meeting supporting James Butts, I noted how fairness is important in creating the preconditions for successful regional collaboration. When I remarked that I happen to be allergic to unfairness, Beverly Hills Council colleague, Dr. William W. Brien, who had schlepped all the way down to Carson to make his “Save Pam O’Connor Squad” comments in person — even though I was the voting delegate for BH — suggested that he would prescribe me pills for this allergy.
I’m not sure that I would necessarily trust an orthopedist to prescribe allergy medicine, though Dr. Brien may have been trying to make a joke. But disenfranchisement is no joke, and instead of wisecracks, he might have tried to grasp the irony of his open and misguided support of a candidate who had publically vowed to do absolutely nothing to address the issue of disproportionate representation and the fact that the majority of the county – including Beverly Hills and our entire sub-region – is underrepresented on the Metro Board.
This isn’t the antebellum South and fractional representation has never worked well in this country. Indeed, it was the landmark Supreme Court decision Reynolds v. Sims which fortified the American principle of “one person, one vote.” The majority decision in that case was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, Dr. Brien’s grandfather. We need that same principle to apply to our representation on the Metro Board, because disproportionate representation is a wedge which makes overarching regional cooperation difficult; all of us, including Dr. Brien, should work towards the goal of removing that wedge to allow the entire region to move forward together.
Ultimately, it was very telling that James Butts won election in an overwhelming show of support. The only cities that supported Pam O’Connor were Santa Monica, Culver City and the four smaller cities on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, who have limited public transit.
James Butts is not beholden to any clique of political cronies or network of special interests. He is willing to work towards structural changes which will address the problem of systemic underrepresentation and disenfranchisement, as well as – very importantly — to listen and think for himself. He made it clear that he would represent the cities that elected him and not Metro’s central bureaucracy. James Butts’s selection as our Metro Board representative is good news for Beverly Hills and it’s good news for the entire region. This was the right move for all of us, and it will be great to have a Metro Board member who wants to do the right things for the right reasons.