LA County vs. City of Los Angeles—How Government Works in Topanga

Annemarie DonkinBy Annemarie Donkin

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LA County vs. City of Los Angeles—How Government Works in Topanga
Los Angeles County’s population is larger than all but eight states, has a budget of nearly $40 billion and is run entirely by a five-person Board of Supervisors. Topanga is located in the County’s Third District and Lindsey P. Horvath is the newly-elected Supervisor. The Supervisor and her staff are the direct representatives for the community of about 13,000 residents known as “Unincorporated Topanga” and the Topanga Town Council (TTC) is the main liaison with the County. Los Angeles County According to lacounty.gov, the County of Los Angeles has the largest population (10,047,926 as of Dec. 2021) of any county in the nation, and is exceeded by only eight states. Approximately 27 percent of California’s residents live in Los Angeles County. The Board of Supervisors, created by the State Legislature in 1852, is the governing body. The five Supervisors are elected to four-year terms by voters within their respective districts. The Board has executive, legislative and quasi-judicial roles. The Board of Supervisors appoints all department heads other than the Assessor, District Attorney and Sheriff, which are elective positions. Traditional mandatory services provided by the County include law enforcement, property assessment, tax collection, voting, public health protection, public social services and relief to indigents. Among the specialized services are flood control, water conservation, parks and recreation, and many diversified cultural activities. There are 88 cities within the County, each with its own city council. All of the cities, in varying degrees, contract with the County to provide municipal services. Additionally, more than 60 percent of the County—2,600 square miles—is unincorporated. For the one million people living in those unincorporated areas, including Topanga, the Board of Supervisors is their “city council” and County departments provide the municipal services. According to the LA Forward Institute, “Los Angeles County makes the decisions about every aspect of our local public and mental health systems, social services and safety net programs, felony prosecution, local jails, child protective services and foster care, services for people who are living without shelter, property tax assessment, sales taxes, the operation of the Metro regional transportation agency, oversight of all public school districts, and even the policing, firefighting, parks, and libraries of approximately half the cities and all of the “unincorporated” areas of LA County. Its $36.1 billion budget is bigger than those of all but 15 states. Compare that to L.A. City, which has a budget of just over $10 billion for a population nearly half the size.” The LA Forward Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and the educational arm of LA Forward. It makes local government accessible and advances political accountability through public education, strategic research, and leadership development. Find their comprehensive guide to the County and City of Los Angeles at https://www.la101.guide/what-is-the-difference. Guide to County Services To inform the public of available services, the Board of Supervisors ordered “A Guide to County Services:” https://lacounty.gov/newsroom/publicinformation/guide-to-county-services. The City of Los Angeles The City of LA is in a category of its own. According to the LA Forward Institute, it’s the second biggest municipality in the United States, with a population of more than four million. It operates massive police and fire departments, libraries, public works, parks, sanitation disposal, street services and more, in addition to housing and planning departments. “The City also has control over all water and electricity provision within its borders through its publicly owned utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (with its own budget of $6.1 billion), the Port of LA (through which $297 billion in cargo passed in 2018), and LAX airport (serving 88 million people annually),” the LA Forward Institute posted. “To grossly overgeneralize, the County is responsible for social services to people while the cities are responsible for shaping the physical landscape. But the answer to whether something is the City’s responsibility or the County’s is usually “it depends.” Often the answer is different depending on which city you’re in and whether they’ve contracted out certain functions to the County. Or the answer is both—especially when it comes to matters like transportation where there are municipal and county agencies working in tandem. Or homelessness, where cities deal with shelter and housing issues while the County is mostly responsible for services and there’s a joint LA City-LA County agency— Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which has all the challenges you might expect from an entity which has to answer to multiple political overseers.” The Topanga Town Council Since its inception in 1977, the Topanga Town Council (TTC) has been serving an ever-growing and ever-changing community. It became a non-profit California corporation whose function was to act as an informational conduit between the town and local government officials. As an all-volunteer organization, the TTC serves as the main liaison with the L.A. County Third District Supervisor’s office. “We have no Mayor or official City Council,” wrote Carrie L. Carrier, President of the TTC. “Everything we have, including the Town Council, is grass roots-based. We do not receive any regular governance funding. We operate like every/any other civic-minded nonprofit with a mission to communicate and promote community concerns and interests.” Carrier explained how Topanga, as an “unincorporated” community, is governed. “Making matters somewhat more confusing for folks is that communities like Topanga are officially “census-designated places,” but they have not incorporated into separate municipalities with their own tax base and governance structure. We’re a little too small to incorporate, though the “dream” of doing so remains because it would give us more control over certain things like public safety and the response to homelessness. Of course, because our tax base is so small, we wouldn’t have sufficient funds to do much, but the dream remains! Due to a lack of having an “official” local voice, the Topanga community (and other similar areas that constitute “communities” or “neighborhoods”) began forming local town councils as nonprofits but not governing bodies, to help organize and communicate local concerns to our County Supervisorial, State and Federal representatives. “That’s what the Topanga Town Council does. We formed/incorporated as a nonprofit “civic body” to act as a local organizing body/clearinghouse for local community concerns that we distill into a message and share with our elected representatives at the County, State and Federal levels. We operate as a totally open/accessible nonprofit that any member of the public can participate in (and whose meetings folks can attend) for free. “We hold 10 public meetings per year at which residents can meet with our County/State/Federal representatives and share their concerns. If we receive a critical mass of complaints about a particular issue or concern, we will issue a summary statement of the issue and the prevailing concerns, as well as some potential solutions that may be palatable to residents based on the feedback that we receive from them and local businesses and nonprofits. “We are all unpaid volunteers with significant experience in local public and community affairs. Anyone can volunteer for the Town Council, and anyone who resides in Topanga or who owns land here can be nominated to the Board, with elections every four years.” Board members must attend most public and private meetings and take an active leadership role in running one or more local programs (e.g. pollinator protections, emergency preparedness, wildlife habitat conservation, composting, trash, sustainable/nontoxic vegetation management, or policy advocacy for residents/businesses).” Carrier added that they have liaised for decades with the County Supervisor in helping to convey and resolve local community concerns in conjunction with other local nonprofits, including TCEP, TASC, the Canyon SAGES, Arson Watch, the Firesafe Council, the Topanga Chamber of Commerce, Topanga Animal Rescue, and CERT. OneTopanga.com is an online program of the Topanga Town Council. For information or to join a meeting: onetopanga.com.
Annemarie Donkin

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January 20, 2023

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