Los Angeles Is 88 Cities, Many of Them Corrupt

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A primer on America's biggest urban landscape and a source of its civic dysfunction

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There's a lot you don't know about L.A. New York City has five boroughs, 59 community boards, and obscure city agencies aplenty. Even so, every last resident is ultimately represented by Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council. Civic information is available to them on the Web site NYC.gov. And help is a 311 call away. In Los Angeles County, an urban area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, there are 88 municipalities, countless unincorporated areas, and almost 10 million residents, many of whom aren't entirely sure what jurisdiction they're in at any given moment.

Or even where they live:

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The exact boundaries of the City of Los Angeles are especially impossible to delineate when you're driving what may or may not be its streets. Forced to risk $50 if proven wrong, I'd hesitate before telling you that my own neighborhood, Venice, is a mere district in the City of Los Angeles, not its own city. We do have a neighborhood council, whatever that means. It takes me three minutes to escape whatever power it wields: the City of Santa Monica is to my immediate north, and accessible by bike path.

As often, however, I pedal south on a 16 mile route that traverses the unincorporated streets of Marina Del Rey, Playa Del Rey (a beach-side community in the city of Los Angeles), and four incorporated municipalities: El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach.

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All lovely places.

But if you're intending to visit, I'd suggest driving or biking, because every time someone has tried to explain the various bus systems that connect them, and the rules for transferring among them, I've experienced that same feeling I had in the class that convinced me to stop taking math.

It usually doesn't matter what city one inhabits at a given moment. But it does come up. My girlfriend, a Venice resident, would take her dog Isabel to the Santa Monica dog park, but doesn't because only licensed Santa Monica dogs are allowed. Here in Venice, no one checks the papers of dogs as they enter the dog park. (We're apparently a bunch of hippies and bohemians.)

Local officials aren't always on top of things. Once I attended a party at the home of a Hollywood screenwriter. (I mean that he works in the entertainment industry, not that he resides in the geographic area of Hollywood, a district in the City of Los Angeles. It is unique in that state law mandates that records be kept as if it were it's own city, even though it's not. Its neighbor, West Hollywood, is its own incorporated municipality.) Anyway, this screenwriter has a great house. On his back patio, which affords a panoramic view of neighborhoods stretching all the way down to the ocean, he told me about the time inspectors from the City of Santa Monica showed up demanding that he pay some fine they were attempting to levy. He insisted he wouldn't pay them. They were smugly certain that he would. He assured them  that they were wrong. They threatened legal action. So he informed them that contrary to their misconception, he lived in the City of Los Angeles, unlike some of his neighbors, who are on the other side of the irregular boundary that separates the cities. In Metro LA, even the people in charge are often unclear on their civic geography.

Despite these SNAFUs, everything on the West Side functions relatively smoothly. In other parts of Los Angeles County, however, the proliferation of independent municipalities causes a lot of problems. Things are especially bad in South LA, which used to be called South Central LA, until the Rodney King riots, after which it re-branded. That didn't stop my San Francisco friends, Deepa and Geoff, from following freeway signs there on an LA visit - they knew place names like Inglewood and Compton from the gangsta rap they listened to growing up, and wanted to see the sites.

It turns out that Dr. Dre and Tupac never rapped about South LA's most brazen lawbreakers. In Maywood, years of financial mismanagement forced the city to dismantle its police department and lay off all city workers. The Los Angeles Times just won a Pulitzer for its coverage of corruption in Bell, where city officials paid themselves many millions in excessive salary and benefits. Something similar happened in Lynwood a few years back: "A majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes; lavish foreign travel and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment, including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janeiro."

Then there's Vernon.

It may just be the strangest Los Angeles County municipality of them all. Located five miles south of downtown Los Angeles, it is roughly 5 miles square, touts itself as "exclusively industrial," and has a population of just 112 people. There are no parks or schools - not even a grocery store. But it is home to more than 1800 businesses attracted by its low municipal taxes and lax regulations.

Is it all going to end?

Vernon has become the center of a vast and costly power struggle, as state officials have embarked on an extraordinary campaign to legally abolish the city and make it part of Los Angeles County...

This tiny city has responded with a sophisticated, high-priced battle with the trappings of a national campaign. It has hired a fleet of some of the highest-paid lobbyists, lawyers, political consultants and communications experts in the country. Lawyers are being paid $550 an hour and lobbying firms $12,000 a month. Vernon officials argued that businesses would shut down if Vernon is dis-incorporated, that the Legislature has no legal standing to abolish it and that corruption here has been cleaned up.

Ah yes, the corruption. This is where it gets good. The last leader of the municipality served as mayor and city council member for 50 years! (His grandfather founded the city.) His colleagues in city government?

To be a councilman in Vernon is to be a chosen one. You don't just move into town and get involved in community affairs. To live within the honeycomb of factories and warehouses, you must get the city to lease you an apartment or home.

Yes, the city owns all residential property in its jurisdiction. The effect on civic health is predictable:

The five councilmen live in city-owned homes and apartments, paying below-market rents of $147 to $236 a month. As Vernon's leaders, they are both renters and landlords. At least two councilmen have family members or friends who also live in Vernon housing. Contested elections are rare, and all but one of Vernon's five sitting councilmen was appointed to his post. The last time someone won their seat in the small industrial town in an actual election, Richard Nixon was president.

For running a city of less than 100 people, they are among the highest paid council members in California, earning nearly $70,000 a year for part-time work. They also receive generous medical benefits... with the city paying $100,000 each to cover the healthcare benefits of two City Council members in 2009.

Later this year, the California legislature is expected to vote on whether or not to strip Vernon of its status as a city. If they do so, it will operate as an unincorporated area under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County. If I withdrew $1,000 from the bank, walked out to the Venice boardwalk, and spent a day asking passersby to name any member of the LA County Board of Supervisors, I suspect that I could reward correct answers with $100 bills and never run out of money.  

On a recent evening, I listened as a couple people I know talked about Metro LA's crazy patchwork of civic jurisdictions. We were in a nice backyard in Santa Monica. Here's how the conversation proceeded.

"Why is Bell even its own city?"

"I dunno. Why is Santa Monica?"

"Yeah, but Santa Monica makes sense. I mean, it functions."

"Sure."

"We should just make Bell and Maywood and all those corrupt little cities part of L.A."

"What about West Hollywood and Beverly Hills?"

"Those cities work."

"You realize you're basically saying only rich people should be allowed to have their own cities."

"Whoa. I mean, that's not what I'm saying. But I hadn't thought of it that way. So make everything part of L.A."

"Do you really think Santa Monica and Beverly Hills are just going to give up being cities?"

They will not.

For all sorts of reasons, Greater LA is going to blunder on with its current system mostly intact, giving some of its residents greater local autonomy, and consigning others to marginally more corruption as a result.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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