There’s an old saying that, as with sausages, it’s best not to watch laws being made. But sometimes, as has been the case with the City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform over the last six or seven months, watching the making of new laws can be a fascinating and highly educational process.
After the last city council redistricting cycle in 2021, and then several later scandals involving sitting councilmembers, many people throughout the city cried out for two kinds of reforms – placing the redistricting process in the hands of a truly independent redistricting commission, and expanding the size of the city council to reduce the power of each individual Councilmember and to decrease district sizes to make them easier to govern and more responsive to their constituents.
But while many people agree these changes are probably long overdue, and that they should be done immediately (if not a few years ago), the minutely detailed work by the seven members of the committee charged with creating those reforms – Paul Krekorian, Bob Blumenfield, Nithya Raman, Eunisses Hernandez, Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Heather Hutt, and Traci Park – shows just how complex and time consuming the seemingly simple tasks can be. And, in fact, no matter how much people wish someone could just snap their fingers and make it all happen, there’s a lot more to those very basic reforms than we might think.
For example, if you increase the size of the current 15-person city council, just how big should it be – 19 members, 21, 23, 25, 27, 31…or larger? (New York and Chicago each have more than 50 city council members.) Which sizes work best in other cities, and why? What are the pluses and minuses of each possible size? Does increasing the council size increase the opportunity for equitable representation for various communities of interest…or does it make equity less likely because smaller districts might be naturally less diverse? Also, how does adding seats to the council affect its election schedule? When would the new districts be added? How would those new districts fit into the council’s currently staggered election schedule? Would term lengths in some districts have to be adjusted once or twice, or every 10 years or so, to properly sync up with the new election cycles? Which current seats would be affected by these changes…and would that be fair to the councilmembers currently holding those seats, especially if they’re also among the most newly elected to the Council?
Also, if you want a truly independent redistricting commission, what exactly does “independent” mean? How many people should be on the commission? How many alternates should there be? How long should their terms of service be? What should their required qualifications be (or not be)? How would you make sure that everyone who might be interested in serving on the commission finds out about the opportunity? How would they apply? What mechanism would be used to select commissioners and alternates, and how can you build real equity into the process? What would the mechanism be for removing people from the commission, and what kinds of circumstances could trigger a removal effort? Should people who have served on other city commissions be allowed to serve on a redistricting commission? Should people be allowed to run for public office after serving on a redistricting commission? Should city employees be allowed to serve on a redistricting commission? Should commissioners be allowed to talk to city councilmembers during the redistricting process? If all redistricting conversations are required to be had during fully public meetings, with no commissioners allowed to talk to stakeholders outside of those meetings, how do you handle the inevitable social media conversations that tag certain commissioners but not others?
And which of these myriad details are required to be enshrined in the City Charter, and thus put out to voters for final approval, and which could be more quickly and effectively inserted into the city’s administrative codes instead?
Each these questions, and many, many more, have been debated by the Ad Hoc committee over the last six months. And in addition to its own debates, and detailed discussions with John Wickham, the city’s Assistant Chief Legislative Analyst, the committee has also heard input from large numbers of stakeholders, and listened to presentations from several select groups, including an academic coalition, a coalition of grass roots political groups, and California Common Cause, each of which has made its own list of recommendations.
At the Committee’s last meeting, on September 18, committee chair (and City Council president) Paul Krekorian had planned for the committee to vote on as many of the of the group’s final recommendations as possible, for both the independent redistricting commission, and the recommended expansion of the city council.
But instead, the discussion once again turned to a number of very specific details about the independent redistricting commission, and – after six hours – ended with at least a few of those details still unresolved. And the committee never even got to to its final discussion of ideal Council size.
Instead of frustration, though, the meeting actually closed with enthusiastic praise for the detailed discussion process so far, and, especially, for the extensive research efforts of Wickham and the CLA staff, who have provided an ongoing series of lengthy, highly detailed, and progressively more focused reports that have helped drive each of the governance reform discussions to date.
It’s not the kind of thing you generally hear committees praising loudly…but in this case, the kudos were both warm and enthusiastic, with several committee members echoing committee member Traci Park telling Wickham, “you took an extremely complex, multi-layered subject matter and masterfully wrote this up into digestible bits with a guided conversation that has helped us wrangle these issues…Well done, all around. Thank you.”
Krekorian concurred, saying that when he saw Wickham’s first 1,000-page report at the beginning of the committee’s discussion process, he thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me…because I tend to be an in-the-weeds kind of guy, but I couldn’t have imagined there’d be [so many] sub-issues of issues as have proven to be the case.”
“And you were right,” Krekorian said. “The complexity of that first report, the importance of that, has been borne out by the things we’ve been debating that I didn’t even think were issues, but have generated debate and discussion and we probably wouldn’t have even considered some of those thigs had you not pulled it all apart [for us]. I hope that this is the sort of thing that when people look at best practices elsewhere, they’ll be able to benefit from this work as well.”
Krekorian also acknowledged that the public can sometimes get frustrated with such a long and detailed reform process, thinking, “You should just be able to do it [snaps fingers] and just get it done.” And when that doesn’t happen, he said, people may lose patience. But it’s also true, he said, that it’s both rare and valuable that councilmembers get a chance to dissect and debate an issue as thoroughly and deliberately as they’ve done with this one. And that’s a very good thing.
“This is not easy stuff or else it would have been done beforehand,” Krekorian said. “So we’re taking on something that nobody in 100 years has ever chosen to do in this city, and we’re going to be effective in getting it done.”
Likely Consensus So Far
So what exactly has been accomplished over the last six months or so? To summarize the committee’s general agreements so far, its members have seem to have reached consensus on many recommendations for a new independent redistricting commission, including:
- The commission should have 17 members, and probably eight alternates (both four and eight were discussed at the September meeting).
- Commissioners would serve 10-year terms, beginning in years ending in 9, which would be the year before each decennial census that provides data for the next redistricting process. Alternates might be able to serve shorter terms. (Although most of the commission’s redistricting work would be completed in the first two years of their terms, the 10-year terms would keep them available in case there were later legal challenges to the maps they’d drawn, and in case any of the maps needed to be redrawn before the next redistricting cycle.)
- All applicants for the commission would have to fill out a standardized form and attest to some basic, objective qualifying measures, including some kind of community involvement history. Voter registration or history would NOT be a requirement.
- The Ethics Commission, which would oversee the redistricting process, would select a random pool of perhaps 150 people from among the initial group of objectively qualified applicants, and then half of the commissioners would be picked by random public lottery from that random pool. (There has also been discussion of possibly dividing the initial pool of applicants into four geographic regions, to ensure some geographic diversity in this first round of selections.)
- The commissioners chosen in the first random lottery would then choose the remaining commissioners from the pool of objectively qualified applicants, using some more subjective criteria to balance different kinds of diversity among the group (factors may include ethnicity, race, gender, age, geography, profession, etc.). These discussions and selections would be made during fully public meetings, and there would be opportunities for public input on the recommended selections before the candidates are approved.
- Removal of commissioners would be by 2/3 vote of the commission, and there would be an appeals process managed by the Ethic Commission.
- Grounds for removal of a commissioner could include excessive absences, working for a political candidate, violation of ex parte communications rules, moving out of the city during their term in office, transparency violations, and more.
- Applicants for the commission would not be eligible if they have contributed more than $500 to a campaign for local or state political office within the last eight years.
- After the redistricting process, redistricting commissioners would be prohibited for running for office representing any district for which they helped draw maps, and would be prohibited for working for any elected official in a district that they helped draw.
- Members of other city commissions would be prohibited from applying to become members of the independent redistricting commission, but this would NOT include current neighborhood council members, who would be eligible to apply.
- Redistricting commissioners would be prohibited from either registering or acting as a lobbyist in city proceedings.
While the Ad Hoc Committee members seemed to mostly agree on the points above at September’s meeting, however, they did not quite reach consensus on several other issues, including:
Ex Parte Communications – Most of the committee members agreed there should be a total ban on ex parte communications (discussing redistricting matters outside of public meetings, especially with current city councilmembers). But once again, there were questions about how that should or could work in today’s world. For example, could commissioners discuss redistricting only in public meetings of the full commission? Or would it also be OK for just two or three commissioners to meet and discuss redistricting with specific community groups – either in person or online – as long as those meetings are also fully public, and advance notice of the sessions is available to everyone via a well-known and well-publicized central source of information about the redistricting process (like a specific city website)? And what happens – as it inevitably will – when someone in some sort of online forum, public or not, tags a commissioner or two, providing them with information or discussion details other commissioners may not yet have knowledge of?
Redistricting Criteria – Four specific criteria for drawing district boundaries are mandated by state law (compliance with the U.S. Constitution, compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, Compliance with the State Constitution, and requiring that districts have “reasonably equal population,” except where deviation is required by law for some reason). But what other kinds of criteria, if any, should the city require? Geographic contiguity and compactness – two factors that have usually been included by tradition, if not law – were both mentioned, but not definitively agreed on. And the door was left open to consider other criteria as well, as long as they wouldn’t contradict any of the existing legal requirements in any way.
Community Assets – In the last round of city council redistricting, one of the most contentious issues was community assets, and how to make sure large “economic engines” such as airports, convention centers, stadiums, museums and more are, as city law currently requires, “distributed equitably across the city.”
While some committee members argued that the jobs and business generated by these sites benefit the city at large, and not just a specific council district, which means this shouldn’t be a big issue in redistricting, others argued passionately that a large community asset’s inclusion in a specific district’s boundaries does matter very much, especially to adjacent council districts.
For example, committee member Eunisses Hernandez noted that her district (CD 1) gets a lot of traffic flow and congestion from the Los Angeles Convention Center, which lies just outside her district’s boundaries. But because the center is not within CD 1’s boundaries, the district gets no traffic abatement help from the city.
Similarly, committee member Marqueece Harris Dawson, who represents Council District 8, said his district lies just across the street from the city’s new football stadium, and gets a large share of the venue’s traffic, noise, and other disruptions. But when mitigating measures and community improvements – such as large swaths of new tree planting – were doled out as part of the project’s approval, CD 8 got none of them. So now, he said, there are large areas of new trees in the community on one side of the stadium, but the other side is barren, which benefits no one.
Finally, Krekorian chimed in, too, saying that in his district, landfills present a similar problem. Several of the facilities lie just across the street from his district’s boundaries, he said, but because they’re not in his district, his area doesn’t get any of the community impact funds generated by the sites.
While these were very concrete examples of why councilmembers consider such assets worth fighting to include in their districts, and why they see a need to address the issue in new redistricting rules, committee member Nithya Raman argued that such fights are actually a result of the city’s broken planning process, which erroneously determines mitigation measures by district council district boundaries instead of by a more appropriate geographic radius around a site. So while it’s a problem that urgently needs fixing, she said, the proper reforms would be to the planning process, not redistricting.
Effective Dates for New Maps, and How That Affects Election Cycles – After the last redistricting cycle, the new city council district maps went into effect as soon as they were approved by the Council in late 2021. Because the number of districts didn’t change during that process though – there were 15 city council districts before the redistricting, and there were still 15 afterward – the Council’s established election cycle was not affected.
If the number of Council districts increases during the next redistricting cycle, however, there would need to be new rules about when the new maps would take effect, and how that would affect the Council’s current election cycle, which now sees half the districts up for election every two years.
So which election year would the maps take effect in? And if that’s a year when half of the existing seats are also up for election, as well the a large number of new districts/seats, how would the elections be staggered after that to even things out again? Would it staggering create some 2-year or 6-year election cycles, at least once or twice, for some of the new (and maybe some of the old) districts…and which would be preferrable?
Committee members Eunisses Hernandez and Traci Park – two of the most newly-elected members of the city council – both said it would be difficult for new councilmembers to manage a the time and expense of a two-year election cycle, and that if some terms had to be shorter or longer, at least for a while, the 6-year term would definitely be preferable.
The next meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Governance Reform is scheduled for tomorrow – Thursday, October 5, at 11:00 a.m. in the City Council Chamber at City Hall. It’s likely the Committee will finally take votes on at least the redistricting commission recommendations…and perhaps also the recommendations for increasing the size of the city council, though that issue has not yet been quite as thoroughly discussed. At tomorrow’s meeting, public comments will be taken, but only from people who attend in person. A live video feed will also be available (see https://clerk.lacity.gov/calendar closer to the meeting time for the video link), though no comments will be taken from remote attendees.
Once the committee makes its final recommendations, the issue will move to the full city council for further discussion and votes, and the resulting reform proposals will then be crafted into a ballot measure outlining the required changes to the City Charter, which will likely be presented to voters in the November 2024 election.