Urban Scrawl on Downtown's Redistricting Battle

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Over the last month, a lot of people in City Hall have been, to put it mildly, completely freaking out over the proposed new City Council boundaries. They are not alone — residents from South Los Angeles to Downtown to Koreatown to Silver Lake to Westchester to portions of the San Fernando Valley have vociferously protested the draft maps offered by the City Council Redistricting Commission.

In short, the commission, clearly under orders from the elected officials who appointed them, have created an absolute mess. Many charge that the proposed boundaries have more to do with politics than neighborhoods. Those complaining are, to a large degree, correct. Although some of the fracas concerns keeping communities of interest together and trying to ensure that each of the 15 districts has approximately the same number of inhabitants, any attempt at fairness has been clobbered by what amounts to naked power grabs. There are unfortunate instances in which the new boundaries sure seem to be political payback for going against the wishes of those who currently hold the most power.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about the process is that much of the dissatisfaction was avoidable. If the city had put redistricting in the hands of an independent body, like the state did, then there would be fewer complaints. This is not to pretend that everyone would be happy — people would still protest. However, there would be far less politics and punishment involved.

Unfortunately, the current anger and rhetoric are not surprising. Several months ago, this page looked at the early machinations of redistricting and warned that unless individuals acted very carefully, the process would not pass the smell test. Given the draft maps and the response they engendered, it appears that we underestimated the degree to which the process would stink.

The problem stems from having those who will gain or lose by redistricting also being key players in the map drawing. There are 21 people on the Redistricting Commission, with the mayor appointing three individuals and the city controller, city attorney and 14 council members each having a single selection; the council president (Eric Garcetti at the time of the appointments) gets two. The commission’s executive director, Andrew Westall, served as a legislative deputy to new Council President Herb Wesson before taking this job. 

Whether elected officials admit it or not, each commission member answers to the politician who appointed him or her. The office holders have the ability to replace their appointees whenever they want, even if this is masked as a “resignation.” The council members are continually dueling and horse trading with each other — the messages of what they want and where they will bend are clearly communicated (often by intermediaries) to members of the commission. 

That’s not the end of it. Once the commission finishes its maps (by March 1), the council takes over. The lawmakers do not have to sign off on the boundaries until July 1.

The process has led to a heated conflict in Downtown Los Angeles, with Ninth District Councilwoman Jan Perry vigorously protesting a map that moves nearly all of Downtown into the 14th, which is represented by José Huizar. Huizar is just as forcefully laying out his arguments for why the maps, which will be in effect until 2022 (redistricting happens once a decade), make perfect sense. The end result is an ugly fight between Downtown’s two most prominent civic leaders.

Perry has clashed with Wesson in recent months. So, too, has Bernard Parks. The Eighth District rep is furious over a proposal to yank Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills and other territories he has long overseen and plop them into the 10th, which is Wesson’s turf. It got to the point that an email from Parks to community stakeholders last week demanded “Don’t Let Herb Wesson Break-up the 8th Council District Just Because It Will Benefit His Political Career.” 

This is only the beginning of the tumult. Stakeholders in Koreatown are blistering the political class and threatening to sue for carving up their district once again. The proposed Fourth District borders on insanity, as it stretches like spaghetti from Silver Lake to Encino.

There is not a lot of hope for a fair resolution to this process. Perhaps some of these boundaries were intentionally drawn foolishly so they can be pulled back and individuals can pretend to reach a face-saving compromise. However, even if the pols shake hands, many citizens will wind up angry. This is an exercise in power politics, not democracy.

We would like to say we’re not blaming the commissioners, but it isn’t quite so. Yes, tradition and power structure demand that they do the bidding of those who appointed them. But there comes a time when all appointees have to be more than tools. They have the option to ignore the pols and hammer out something that makes sense. Let the City Council directly take the blame if they later reverse the commission’s best judgment. 

As we said earlier, office holders could have avoided this mess by opting for independent cartographers. Maybe the current tumult will inspire them to follow a different process in the future. Maybe.

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2011