The 3 January Christian Science Monitor ran a story under the headline, “Is L.A. area big enough for two mayors?,” about a proposal to establish an elected county executive position in Los Angeles County, California.
All counties in California, aside from San Francisco, have five-member boards that manage the county affairs through an appointed staff accountable to the board. Each member is elected (usually by two-round majority) in his or own district. San Francisco is different, in that it is both a city and county. It has an 11-member Board of Supervisors that is essentially a city council, as well, and it has a directly elected mayor. (In San Francisco, Board members and the mayor are now elected by instant runoff.)
It does indeed raise significant issues of accountability when there is no mayor–whether directly elected or appointed by the board–who is politically responsible for the administration of the county government.
However, I would be even more concerned about the size of the board than about the absence of a separate chief executive, elected or otherwise. Five members is obviously very small for some of these counties, especially Los Angeles, where the population of 9.8 million makes it larger than 42 US states! The CSM article contains a quote from Professor Jack Pitney to the effect that the county Board (in Los Angeles County, but by implication, that of each county aside from San Francisco) is “a de facto executive.” Recognizing that the existing boards are limited in their legislative role (counties are creatures of the state and hence make very little in the way of local legislation, much less than city councils), I would certainly not advocate a large expansion of these boards to approximate a cube-root-law relationship of size to population,* as I might if they were sovereign legislative organs. Yet they are representative, or are supposed to be, given that they are elected. And five seems ridiculously small for any of California’s larger countries.
If the boards are effectively “executive” already then it is logically inconsistent to create a separate elected executive post. Why not expand the board and have it select a chief executive from its ranks?** Pitney invokes Alexander Hamilton in his argument in favor of an elected mayor to augment (supercede?) the generally executive function of the current board:
…as Alexander Hamilton reminded us … a plural executive is seldom a good idea…. It tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility….
Of course, Hamilton notwithstanding, most comparative political scientists would disagree: Parliamentary systems have plural executives. But that aside, Hamilton was clearly not referring to county government when he made his argument, which came in the context of a debate about what kind of executive to have in a separation-of-powers system. And the problem of a collegial body allegedly concealing faults and destroying responsibility could be fixed by making the collective quasi-executive board more representative. That means larger. It could also mean STV or other more representative electoral systems, but at the very least, reduce the ratio of county residents to board members from LA County’s absurd 1,960,000:1!
So, for county government, why not larger boards that appoint a chief executive instead of little boards with a directly elected mayor?
* Doing so in LA County could mean a 200-seat board!
** Many, mostly smaller, cities in California have mayors appointed by the city council, although there has been a trend towards direct election. Most of the elected mayors, except for some large cities, have mostly ceremonial powers.