‘Long overdue’: Are Los Angeles voters fed up enough to expand the city council?

In summary

Residents in both New York City and Chicago have at least 50 local representatives voicing their needs. Los Angeles has 15. After last year’s council audio leak revealed how some LA officials tried to manipulate redistricting, California’s largest city is reconsidering how it handles representation.

Los Angeles has dawdled for decades over the question of how best to represent its residents, and voters have muffed the chance to make it better. The city has weathered a riot, a secession effort and the everyday stresses of growth and diversity common to big cities across the U.S., but often felt first and most acutely here. 

LA now has an opportunity to confront those questions, mostly thanks to a few egotistical council members and a union boss.

The stage for this conversation was set last year, when a closely fought contest for mayor was interrupted by the release of a recorded conversation among members of the council and the head of the local labor federation. On that recording, three members of council, including its self-absorbed then-president Nury Martinez, dissed their colleagues in shocking, racist terms. 

Even more alarming – at least from a leadership perspective – they were caught discussing strategies to manipulate the city’s redistricting process to enhance Latino voting strength at the expense of Black representation. And they were doing it at the offices of the labor federation, a reminder of where real power lies in LA.

The recording’s short-term impact was to force out Martinez and Fed chief Ron Herrera, cloud the departure of Councilman Gil Cedillo, another participant, and to make Councilman Kevin de Leon (the only one of the four still in his job) a walking symbol of arrogant intransigence. Longer-term, its more productive fallout has been to refocus attention on two potential reforms that might improve the quality of Los Angeles government: creation of an independent commission to oversee the drawing of council district boundaries and expansion of the council itself.

The former is popular. Through a spokesperson, newly elected Mayor Karen Bass said last week that she supports “an independent commission to conduct redistricting in Los Angeles.” Council President Paul Krekorian, who took over for Martinez, called the creation of such a commission “long overdue.”

The city had a chance to embrace that idea before. In the 1990s, when Mayor Richard Riordan launched an effort to overhaul the city charter, one of two reform groups favored a proposal to create such a commission. But some city council members fiercely opposed that effort, preventing its inclusion in the final package voters ultimately adopted in 1999. 

The city instead utilizes a 19-member advisory redistricting commission; it draws the lines, but the council has the final word. The commission looks independent but isn’t, providing what Krekorian described as “a fig leaf of independence.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at UC Berkeley and former chair of the elected charter reform commission, said the formation of a more independent redistricting process was “one of the things I wish we had been able to get done.” In an interview, he expressed hope that the current atmosphere could make the council more receptive to an idea it once fought.

More contentious is the argument for expanding the council. When the council was created roughly 100 years ago, the population of Los Angeles was about 1 million people, so each council member represented fewer than 70,000 residents. Today, the city is pushing 4 million residents, and the council size remains unchanged at 15. Council members each represent about 260,000 people.

That means council members no longer represent neighborhoods or communities but something more akin to congressional districts. Krekorian’s district, for example, includes some of the wealthiest people on Earth, along with areas suffering under gangs and burdened by poverty and housing insecurity. 

Because of Los Angeles’ exciting but challenging ethnic diversity, a single council district can also sweep in Koreatown, Leimert Park and Country Club Park; or Filipino Town, Silver Lake and Little Armenia.

The Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission provides “a fig leaf of independence.”

LA City Council President Paul Krekorian

With such a range of views and identities, today’s LA council districts defy theories of representation. How are council members expected to echo the views of their district when those views are so fragmented? Smaller districts would give each council member a narrower range of interests to represent and would, in theory, bring more of those perspectives to city debates.

That’s an issue for more than just Los Angeles. As communities, particularly big cities, grow increasingly diverse nationwide, the stresses of representative government are being felt everywhere. How this is addressed in Los Angeles may well guide others.

But here’s the rub. To make this happen, voters would need to approve a charter amendment, and the argument would go something like this: “We realize that you are unhappy with your council representatives, so we propose to address that by doubling or tripling the number of them.” 

Try selling that.

The LA charter commissions ran into that problem in 1999. The commissions conducted focus groups and found that voters favored having council members represent fewer constituents but “emphatically” opposed expanding the council, Chemerinsky said. Those infuriatingly contradictory responses put the commissions in a bind. Rather than risk dooming the whole charter, they broke off two expansion alternatives as separate ballot questions.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the charter and just as overwhelmingly voted down measures to expand the council to as many as 25 members. The result: New York today has a council of 51 members; Chicago has 50 aldermen. 

Los Angeles still has 15.

Perhaps that will change. Krekorian favors charter reforms to create an independent commission and expand the council. He’s hoping to do that in 2024. 

That would give voters a chance to right what they got wrong in 1999. And it just might set Los Angeles on the road to better representation.

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