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Why does LA County supervisors race matter? Start with $30 billion

FILE: Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is running unopposed for one of three Board of Supervisors seats on the ballot in this year's election. Damian Dovarganes/AP

The five Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors hold sway over a roughly $30 billion annual budget covering such vital and wide-ranging services as foster care, jails, the sheriff's department and popular museums. 

Yet as in a Jay Leno skit, voters can be hard pressed when asked to name their own supervisor. So when the California June 7 primary rolls around, many may have trouble deciding among the candidates for two competitive seats on the board. 

Counties are about the most important and least understood government bodies in California, said Juliet Musso, University of Southern California public policy professor.

"I think that's largely because a lot of the services that they provide are really kind of invisible to voters," she said.

But sometimes the services that the supervisors oversee break into the news headlines.

Take the recent news that L.A. County social workers face charges in connection with the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez of Palmdale. The boy died of multiple injuries, including a fractured skull, broken ribs and burns over his body.

The charges of felony child abuse and falsifying records, rare when filed against social workers, shocked their fellow employees, but prosecutors said the circumstances warranted the action.

“We believe these social workers were criminally negligent and performed their legal duties with willful disregard for Gabriel’s well-being,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement when the charges were announced.

This case is one among thousands of tragedies and triumphs of varying scale that play out within the tangled web of Los Angeles county services.

At stake in the primary are three board seats, though only two are in play since incumbent Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas is running unopposed.

One seat that will be contested is held by outgoing Republican Don Knabe. It covers District 4, which takes in the South Bay and stretches east to Diamond Bar. The other covers District 5 in North L.A. County, represented by Republican Michael Antonovich.

The openings are the result of term limits approved by voters in 2002 that are now taking effect for Knabe, who has served in the post since 1996, and Antonovich, whose tenure began in 1980.

Jaime Regalado, former California State Los Angeles professor, said this year's election is a key moment when voters will decide the future of the board and the county.

"Before you had term limits, it was practically impossible to see a change over, unless somebody died in office," he said.

Eight candidates, most of them Republicans, are competing for Antonovich’s seat. Among them are his chief of staff, Kathryn Barger, and Los Angeles City Council member Mitchell Englander.

State Sen. Bob Huff, L.A. County prosecutor Elan Carr and Glendale Councilman Ara Najarian are also running as well as Darrell Park, Rajpal Kahlon and Billy Malone.

Contenders for Knabe’s seat include Republican Steve Napolitano and Democrat Ralph Pacheco. Also running is a Democrat whose name voters may recognize, Congresswoman Janice Hahn, considered the front-runner. 

The Board of Supervisors though officially nonpartisan is currently split 3-2, with Democrats holding the majority. The election could add a fourth liberal to their ranks.

Some warn that this "supermajority" could lead to reckless spending.    

But former Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who termed out in 2014 and has endorsed Najarian, said even a more liberal-leaning board would have its limits.

"If they create a financial instability, there's a political accountability issue, there’s a political price to be paid for it," he said.

On the front lines

Step inside the Department of Children and Family Services in downtown L.A. and you might see social worker Jacklyn Chen busy at work on her computer. 

She works in the county's 24/7 call center where her job is to take the calls from people reporting child abuse.

"You know sometimes we get fatalities and those are always very hard," she said.

Among her duties is screening calls for who they can and cannot help. Anyone outside of L.A. County is referred elsewhere. Still the workload is heavy.

"The population of L.A. County is what, like 10 million? So there’s not a lot of us here and we do handle a large volume of calls," she said.

On the day of KPCC's visit, employees were still reeling from the news of the social workers charged in connection with the Gabriel Fernandez case. 

DCFS Assistant Regional Administrator Gregory Stock said social workers do the most good they possibly can, but their resources are scarce.

"Everything comes down to money, obviously," he said.

The Board of Supervisors oversees the children and family services budget and that determines the number of social workers the county can employ. 

After the social workers were charged, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told KPCC reforms have already been made to the Department of Children and Family Services since Gabriel's death.

She said the agency hired 1,000 new social workers to help manage the 25,000 children in the system. 

“Reform takes time, and this Board of Supervisors is very reform-minded about our children,” Kuehl said. 

The board’s duties go far beyond DCFS. The supervisors oversee many critical county services, and several like social work, can have life-and-death consequences.

And that’s why this election matters.

Look for more information from KPCC in the weeks ahead about the supervisors election as the primary draws nearer.