For months, Angelenos have heard local elected officials say they’re working to reform City Hall, following scandalous revelations that three City Council members and a labor leader met secretly to discuss how they or their allies could personally benefit by drawing new council district maps.
The redrawing of district boundaries, known as “redistricting,” is understood by scholars and pundits but is hardly a household concept despite its importance.
Across the nation, city councils undergo redistricting every decade to account for changes to a city’s population, adjusting district boundaries and at times increasing the number of districts in a city if the population grows or shifts.
This is done so each council district is roughly the same size, and to assure local representation.
But despite seeing its population explode and roughly quadruple over the past century, the L.A. City Council has remained at 15 districts – the same number that existed in 1925 when there were fewer than 1 million residents in the city.
Today, with just under 4 million residents, each council district represents nearly 265,000 Angelenos.
The 265,000 figure is so big that researchers publish papers about L.A.’s singular situation, where an individual councilmember speaks for more than a quarter million people.
No other municipality in the U.S. has that many residents within a single city council district. Phoenix has nearly 201,000 residents for each of its eight council districts. In New York City – where the population is more than twice that of L.A.’s and the city council is divided into 51 districts – councilmembers represent fewer than 173,000 people each on average, according to an L.A. city staff report.
“Our districts are gargantuan,” L.A. City Council President Paul Krekorian said in March, during a meeting of the council’s obscure Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform.
“If any one of our districts was an independent city of its own, it would be the 16th largest city in the entire state of California,” Krekorian said. “It would be the third-biggest city in Los Angeles County. … To me, that has become unwieldy and not sustainable.”
Now, as the one-year anniversary approaches of the scandal that forced then-City Council President Nury Martinez to resign, the council’s governance reform committee is inching closer to sending recommendations to the full council to decide what to include in any 2024 ballot question asking voters to approve reform measures.
The governance reform committee is crafting a plan to increase the number of City Council districts in L.A. for the first time in nearly a century.
That could mean that residents across L.A. might vote for their City Council representative in newly added districts that don’t exist today, under districts numbered District 17 or District 21, let’s say.
Some members of the public have urged the council to increase the number of districts by 2026. But another option would be to wait until 2032 – consistent with the normal redistricting cycle – for new districts to go into effect.
In the coming weeks, the governance reform committee must decide how many City Council districts to recommend, or whether voters should be given options on the ballot.
A key issue is whether to create a new, independent redistricting commission that would draw new district maps, preventing city councilmembers from meddling in the process.
Creating an independent redistricting commission in Los Angeles would be a dramatic departure from the past, when politically-appointed commissioners drew maps the City Council could override, effectively giving councilmembers the power to set their own council district boundaries.
During their meeting on Monday, Sept. 18, governance reform committee members spent hours discussing how to create an independent redistricting commission. Redrawing district boundaries is required by law every 10 years, using the latest U.S. Census data.
“This is not easy stuff or else it would have been done before. We’re taking on something that nobody in 100 years has ever chosen to do in this city,” Krekorian said about trying to increase the number of city council districts.
Here is what committee members are wrestling with:
How would commissioners be selected to assure an independent redistricting commission?
The governance reform committee agreed to recommend that the commission be made up of 17 commissioners, plus eight alternates.
They discussed using a multistep process to select the first eight commissioners. Those eight individuals would then select nine more commissioners, taking into account an applicant’s age, race, gender, which part of the city they are from, or other factors to ensure diversity.
The commissioners would serve for 10 years, though most of their work is expected to take place the first two years as they conduct public outreach and redraw council maps.
Redistricting backroom talks
The scandal that prompted city officials to embark on City Hall reforms stemmed from a backroom conversation between three councilmembers in 2021 – then-Council President Martinez and Gil Cedillo, who are no longer on the council, and Councilmember Kevin de León, who remains in office. Powerful union leader Ron Herrera, who headed up the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, was also part of the backroom conversation. He resigned after the scandal broke.
City officials say they want to restrict backroom dealings by prohibiting so-called “ex parte communications,” meaning that the future redistricting commissioners would be banned from having private conversations with councilmembers — or anyone else — outside of a public meeting.
During Monday’s governance reform committee meeting, Council President Krekorian, in a searing comment, slammed L.A.’s system: “The reason that we’re concerned about ex parte communication in the first place is because our current, broken, non-independent, so-called redistricting commission readily took ex parte communications all the time … from people within this building, people outside of this building, and they responded accordingly. … That broken system must be burned to the ground and scrapped entirely.”
Should economic assets be considered as part of redistricting?
Committee members debated whether so-called “economic assets,” such as a sports stadium or airport, or cultural assets like popular museums, should be considered by the redistricting commission when it draws new council district maps.
Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson proposed that the commission consider “economic assets” to ensure that such assets are equitably distributed among council districts.
He and others noted that economic assets can bring jobs to an area, and Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez said such assets can result in fringe benefits, such as corporate sponsorships or donations for events held in a councilmember’s district.
Harris-Dawson used the example of BMO Stadium at Exposition Park, which straddles the border between his district and Councilmember Curren Price’s district, but is located in Price’s district. When trees were planted nearby, they were only planted six miles in one direction and not the other. The result, Harris-Dawson said, is that residents in his district living across from the stadium must put up with traffic and noise without reaping the benefits that come with the stadium.
Councilmember Nithya Raman said she sympathized but said that is an example of “bad” land-use policy, which allows benefits to only accrue in one council district rather than the region as a whole. The council should address that, but economic assets shouldn’t be considered as part of redistricting, she said.
“That is a very true and nice and ideal theory,” Harris-Dawson said. But, he added, “It is completely the opposite of practice.”
The governance reform committee will likely resume this discussion. They are expected to call at least one more meeting to finalize their recommendations, including their proposal to increase the number of City Council districts, before sending them to the full council to consider.
Voters would then vote on any City Council proposals next year.