Los Angeles County contains a quarter of the state's population and is home to the nation's second most populous city, more than 80 smaller cities, a like number of school districts and literally hundreds of single-purpose districts providing fire protection, water, parks, recreation and other services.
The county itself and each of those entities has its own board, administrative superstructure and the power to extract fees and taxes and to borrow money.
Collectively, they probably disburse about $100 billion a year for one purpose or another.
That's big money in anyone's book, but the impact of Los Angeles' local governments goes beyond collecting and spending money.
Their actions have other, immense economic consequences, such as deciding whether land developments can proceed and under what conditions, or who pays what for water.
Los Angeles County's bewildering mélange of overlapping, and sometimes competitive, local government entities has existed for many years, but in the last couple of decades another element has been introduced – its evolution into the nation's most ethnically diverse metropolitan area, thanks to an immense wave of migration from other countries.
When coupled with the decline of the county's once-powerful aerospace industry, one effect has been its sharp bifurcation into enclaves of self-indulgent wealth, surrounded by vast tracts of poverty – especially in the immigrant-heavy smaller cities in the county's southeastern quadrant.
A corollary impact has been, unfortunately, the corruption of many local governments that function semi-secretly, little noticed by media and ignored by their residents, many of whom are noncitizens who cannot vote.
When the Los Angeles Times revealed outrageous self-dealing by politicians who had seized control of the small, poverty-stricken city of Bell a few years ago – resulting in criminal prosecutions – those knowledgeable about the region knew that it was just one of many such situations.
The county is rife with corrupted local governments – and that's just the half-dozen that have been publicly exposed.
That brings us to the FBI's recent interest in the Calderon family of politicians, in part involving its dealings with a small water district in the San Gabriel Valley, which is also home to Bell and other tainted local governments.
We don't know whether the investigation will result in prosecutions, but what's come to light so far – high-dollar consulting contracts, turf battles between water districts, etc. – are indications that it's another example of a familiar local political genre.
We should not be depending on the FBI to root out corruption. If it's endemic – in L.A. or elsewhere – state and local authorities should be attacking it vigorously.