At the beginning of this year, the Los Angeles City Council was still reeling from two major upheavals. The first was the widely excoriated 2021 redistricting process that allowed sitting Councilmembers to have several kinds of input on the new council district boundaries. And the second was the October, 2022 release, just before the November city elections, of recorded conversations among three Latino councilmembers discussing redistricting strategy in 2021 and using racist language to describe several of their colleagues and colleagues’ family members.
One significant result of the controversies, however, was that several City Councilmembers, immediately after the release of the infamous recordings, entered a motion calling for a 2024 ballot measure to revise the City Charter and create a new, truly independent city council redistricting process. The motion resulted in the creation of a new City Council Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform, which has been meeting since February of this year to consider the formation of an independent redistricting commission and several other key changes to improve the integrity of the council and help restore public trust.
Here’s what’s happened since then.
Independent Redistricting Commission
When the Ad Hoc Committee for Governance Reform began meeting this spring, it identified two major topics for a reform-oriented 2024 ballot measure: the creation of a fully independent redistricting commission, and possible expansion of the city council from its current 15 members (the smallest in the nation for a city anywhere near our size) to anything up to about 50 members (New York City has the largest city council in the nation, with 51 members).
But as discussions and research began in earnest, the committee soon realized that each of these issues are big and extraordinarily complex, and each deserves its own deep dive and probably its own separate ballot measure. So the committee temporarily set aside the council expansion discussion, and focused first on recommendations for the creation of an independent city council redistricting commission.
That process culminated in October with the Committee’s recommendations for the new commission. Then, on November 29, the full City Council considered the recommendations, made a few small amendments, and voted unanimously to accept them. The key provisions include:
- The commission should have 14 members, and four alternate members, who will all serve 10-year terms.
- Eight of the 14 commissioners would be chosen randomly from the pool of qualified applicants, with each commissioner residing in one of eight geographic regions of the city. Then the initial eight commissioners would choose the remaining six commissioners from the remaining applicant pool.
- All commissioners must be at least 18 years old, must have lived in the city for at least five years, and should not have been a city employee within the last two years.
- Commissioners should not be allowed to run for office in any districts they have been involved in drawing, and will not be allowed to run for any elected office for at least four years from the end of their service.
- During the map-drawing process, commissioners should consider major economic assets or landmarks in their redistricting discussions.
- Drawing district lines to favor or protect incumbent councilmembers should be prohibited…though districts should retain their district numbers, when possible, in the new maps.
- The redistricting process should be overseen by the Ethics Commission and the City Clerk’s office.
- All ex parte communications (private discussions between commissioners and elected officials) should be prohibited during both the commission selection process and the redistricting process itself.
The recommendations will now be used by the city to craft a redistricting commission ballot measure for the November 2024 election.
Expanding the City Council
Once the recommendations for an independent redistricting commission were off the Ad Hoc Committee’s plate, it turned its attention once again to the question of whether or not to increase the size of the City Council…and, if so, to what size.
This question finally took the spotlight at the Committee’s November 30 meeting, where all seven of the Committee’s members (Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield, Nithya Raman, Traci Park, Eunisses Hernandez, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, and Heather Hutt) seemed to agree that expansion is a good idea because it could help reduce the power (and thus opportunities for corruption) of each individual councilmember, as well as make individual districts smaller and more manageable. (For example, Krekorian pointed out that Harris-Dawson’s district is larger than the entire city of Pasadena, which is governed by a five-member city council.)
On the other hand, however, several committee members said their discussions over the last few months have led them to different conclusions about the ideal number of councilmembers, with most falling somewhere in the range of 21-25. For example, Krekorian said he favors 23 members, while Blumenfield said 21, and Hutt 25, which she said would provide greater opportunities to elect members of underrepresented communities such as LGBTQ, AAPI, and Black residents, as well as women.
Also, and equally important, several committee members said that their discussions so far this year have identified several major issues with the question of increasing the Council size, such as limited resources for council office staffing and budgets, which will need much more thorough research, information, and discussion before they’ll be ready to vote on a final recommendation for a specific number of councilmembers.
So at that point, further discussion of the topic was once again postponed until the committee’s next meeting in January.
Stable Funding Source for the Ethics Commission
While the redistricting commission and council size questions were being dealt with this year, Ad Hoc Committee members, their advisory groups, other City Councilmembers, and members of the public also said frequently at various meetings and in various types of public comments throughout the year that while those two subjects are very important, they won’t be successful without some important ethics reforms to accompany them. And that has resulted in a couple of additional motions now in play – one to create more stable, ongoing funding for the city’s overburdened Ethics Commission…and one to create a more comprehensive, ongoing process for review and modernization of the City Charter.
The motion on Ethics Commisson funding, entered by Councilmembers Eunisses Hernandez and Tim McCosker on September 15, requests that the city’s Chief Legislative Analyst report on the possibility of establishing a new budgeting process, separate from the Mayor’s normal annual budgeting process, to fund the city’s Ethics Commission, which oversees and potentially investigates the behavior of city councilmembers. The intent is to make sure that funding, operations, and viability of the Commission would never be subject to the whims of the same council members it oversees.
This item, too, was discussed at the November 30 meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform, where several committee members, including motion author Hernandez, said they are generally opposed to the kind of “ballot box budgeting” that mandates specific funding levels for specific entities (as has been done for the LA Public Library and the Department of Recreation and Parks), but which also prevents cuts to those budgets when the city’s overall funding suffers a downturn and it’s forced to cut other important services.
But Hernandez also said she thinks ethics is an important exception. And other committee members agreed that the Ethics budget should never be in danger of being reduced by those who are supervised or investigated by the Ethics Commission, which can happen when the City Council has the power to approve its budget.
The result was that the Ad Hoc Committee members voted unanimously to support the motion to look for new ways to fund the Ethics Commission, and it was forwarded to the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee and Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee for further discussions in the new year. (Specific dates for those discussions have not yet been scheduled.)
Periodic and More Comprehensive Charter Review
The final piece of the reform package that we’ve been following is a City Council motion filed on September 19 by Councilmembers Krekorian, Harris-Dawson, and McCosker, asking the Chief Legislative Analyst to research and report on best practices for a more comprehensive and ongoing City Charter reform process, including a commission that will review and evaluate the City Charter and identify Charter Reform recommendations for the 2024 and/or 2026 ballots.
At the Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform’s November 30 meeting, committee chair Krekorian said that while creating an independent city council redistricting commission and potentially increasing the size of the city council both involve changes to the City Charter (which is why ballot measures are necessary for those two items, and not just city council action), the city is also long overdue for a more thorough examination and modernization of the Charter as a whole. And that will be very necessary for further reforms, such as how much power Councilmembers have in land use decisions, the city’s overall budgeting process and schedule, and how the public can have more input into these and other important processes.
The Ad Hoc Committee voted unanimously to support this motion, too, and the full City Council, at its December 12 meeting, also approved it unanimously, with no discussion. So the idea of creating a path for more comprehensive charter reform will return for further discussion when the CLA’s report comes back sometime in the new year.
And that means that while the wheels of change definitely got rolling in 2023, 2024 also promises to be a year of progress on these and other reform measures, with the possibility of several ballot measures for voters to weigh in on next November.