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NCSA Hosts Forum on Possible Expansion of City Council

NCSA Executive Director Lisa Hart (lower right), discusses potential expansion of the LA City Council with (from top left) former City Councilmember Paul Koretz, Rob Quan (UnrigLA) and Russia Chavis Cardenas (California Common Cause).

On Sunday, July 9, the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance, a group of Neighborhood Council representatives and stakeholders from across the city that “advances sustainability and resilience…through advocacy, sharing of best practices, and community action,” hosted a panel discussion on what is almost certainly going to become a huge topic of local discussion in the next few months (as well as a likely ballot measure sometime in the next year or two): whether or not to expand the size of the Los Angeles City Council.

The online discussion was moderated by NCSA Executive Director Lisa Hart, and featured guest speakers Russia Chavis Cardenas, representing California Common Cause, former City Councilmember Paul Koretz, and UnrigLA founder Rob Quan.

In her lead-in to the discussion, Hart noted that the idea of expanding the Los Angeles City Council (which has only 15 members, compared to 50 for Chicago and 51 in New York City), has been around for a long time. But in recent months – especially following several high-profile scandals involving against sitting councilmembers – she said it feels like the conversation has shifted from “Should the Council be bigger?” to “How big should it be?”

Why We Should Expand the City Council…and How Big Should it Be?

Quan said there are several reasons people advocate for a larger council (which would also mean smaller individual city council districts, with each representative having fewer constituents), including better constituent services, more easily-managed districts, more competitive elections, and less opportunity for corruption.  But he said none of those are givens – for example, you won’t necessarily get better constituent services if you also slash the budget for each of the new, smaller districts. And it’s also important to figure out the ideal size for the council, he said, noting that the optimal size for Los Angeles is probably not 50 members, but may be in the 23-25 or 25-29 range.

As for why this issue is gaining steam right now, Koretz said that in the past, when the idea of expanding the council has been raised (including by former District 4 Councilmember David Ryu a few years ago), it didn’t move forward because, in general, people don’t like politicians and they don’t want to vote for something that would create more of them.  But now, said Koretz, following the recent scandals, “there’s a reason” to seriously consider big reforms.

Koretz said that having too few members on the Council means each representative is much more powerful than they would be as a member of a larger body, which makes corruption – such as bribery – more likely.  And it has also led, he said, to the current tradition of the rest of the council lining up unanimously to support a project when the councilmember for that district supports it.  In fact, breaking ranks, Koretz said, is so rare these days that he was treated like a hero when he did vote to oppose something others were supporting.

But Koretz, too, said there is an ideal council size to shoot for, and he definitely found the 80-person California State Assembly, “unwieldly” when he served in it.  So Koretz said he agrees with Quan that the best size for the LA City Council is probably around 25 members…though he also likes the idea of creating some seats for “at large” representatives, in addition to members representing specific districts.  Koretz said his choice would probably be something like 21 individual district representatives and 4 at large seats.

Joining the size conversation, Cardenas said California Common Cause studies examples of good government and democracy across the country, and looks at how city councils work (or don’t work) in many other cities.  For example, in Chicago, she said, each of the 50 city council districts has only about 50,000 people, which she said is probably too small, and leads to a narrow focus on community issues at the expense of larger citywide issues.  And there is also greater infighting, she said, as the councilmembers jockey to promote their own hyperlocal interests.

That said, though, Cardenas said she, too, thinks Los Angeles needs a larger city council, and there do seem to be some representational advantages to the hybrid model that includes both district-based and at-large members. For example, she said, there tends to be better racial and ethnic representation with district-based seats, and better gender diversity with at-large seats.  So far, though, Cardenas said Common Cause is neutral on the best way to create the mix, or the ideal number of seats for district-based and at-large members.

Hart noted that making those size decisions is further complicated by the fact that you can’t really run local experiments (since it’s so hard to change the size of a city council), so there’s very little data available.  And that means we’re “shooting in the dark” to at least some degree, and don’t really know what size would work best for our particular city.

Making a similar point, Quan said he was disappointed that a recent report from the Los Angeles’ Chief Legislative Analyst’s office (which covered many facets of potential city council reform, and which was the basis of six recent presentations to the City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform) didn’t include a more in-depth analysis of potential expansion along with other issues in the city council redistricting process.

But Quan said he thinks we would need at least 23 councilmembers to really address the reforms Los Angeles needs, and that Chicago’s much larger council finds it hard to build coalitions with so many members, because you need to get 26 people on board with something to get a passing vote.

Also, Quan said Los Angeles should increase the power of the mayor, and allow the mayor to get more involved in discussions at the city council level, which could to help to check the power of the city council president and prevent abuses.  Finally, Quan also recommended that if the city does add some number of at-large representatives to the Council, they should all be elected together, in the same election cycle, rather than in staggered elections we currently have four our district-based seats.  Joint elections, along with ranked choice voting and public election funding, he said, would help ensure that not only the single most advantaged candidate would win a seat in each election.

Finally in the general size conversation, and addressing Koretz’s earlier point about the public not being fond of the 15 Councilmembers we already have, Hart asked why people think voters would support adding 15 more of them…and Cardenas agreed that simply expanding the size of the council wouldn’t reduce corruption by itself.  But she said it can definitely be an effective item in a toolbox that also includes a truly independent redistricting commission and significant ethics reform (including changes in the relationship between the City Council and the Ethics Commission, and whether or not the Council is required to act on the Commission’s recommendations), both of which also need to be on the city’s checklist.

Ethics Reform

While the issue of city council corruption is front and center right now, Koretz said he was only offered a bribe once in his 35 years of public service, when he was still fairly new in office and a developer offered to sell the city a piece of land for a city park.  Koretz said it seemed like a good deal…until the developer said Koretz would find $25,000 under his door at home if he supported the sale.  Koretz said that being new at the time, he let the incident slide, but it left him wondering whether these kinds of thing are common…and when he found out they really do happen, the question became, “How do we avoid them?”

Quan said he, too, agrees 100% on the need for ethics reform…and that we should also look at the idea of having multiple city council representatives per district, like the city of Portland, which has only four city council districts, each with three city council members.

But unlike Cardenas, Quan said he thinks even just increasing the council size by itself could help prevent corruption.  For example, he said, having more members increases the chances for dissent among councilmembers and helps prevent lockstep voting, which could have stopped Jose Huizar’s malfeasance.

Also, said Quan, the city shouldn’t rely on its Ethics Commission, or even the FBI, to take a proactive role in hunting out and eliminating corruption.  Instead, he said, the best way to fight corruption is holding competitive elections…which Los Angeles doesn’t really have.  In fact, he said, there was a recent 15-year period in which an incumbent never lost a city council election (although there have now been three such losses in the last few years).  So having truly competitive elections is “really, really important,” Quan said, because if politicians believe they can’t lose an election, they become conditioned to feel they’re untouchable in other ways, too.

Bottom Line?

Hart asked the panelists what would happen if expanding the size of the council turns out not to be the right solution to the current problems, but Koretz said he’s definitely inclined to think it will help…and we can’t know until we try.  At the same time, though, he agreed with Quan’s earlier point about it being a bad idea to slash the budgets for new, smaller council districts, because each would still need things the individual larger districts used to have, like their own homeless services teams.

Cardenas said she, too, thinks constituent services would improve with smaller districts, because councilmembers would realize they need to be more responsive and accessible to their constituents when there are fewer of them.  For example, she said that when she lived in an unincorporated area of LA County, where there were no city council representatives and the only elected politicians representing her were the five county supervisors who collectively represent two million people, it was nearly impossible to get their attention for smaller neighborhood issues.  Having more councilmembers representing fewer people, she said, should “push power down to the people” and make their elected representatives more responsive.

And Quan agreed, noting that during election campaigns, city council candidates often promise to respond to all constituent calls to their office.  But with districts of 250,000 residents, that kind of responsiveness is simply impossible…and voters get upset when it doesn’t happen.  But Quan said responsiveness should improve with smaller districts, and people would be impressed if those kinds of campaign promises were actually kept.  “I want people to tangibly feel there’s a different city council in front of them,” Quan said, and increasing the size of the city council, and decreasing the size of its districts, he said, could help make that difference.

Questions and Comments

During a public comment session after the main discussion, forum attendees expressed a wide variety of opinions on how best to reform the city council, from “no, no, no” on the expansion question to alternative suggestions such as fully separating the San Fernando Valley from the City of Los Angeles.

But others agreed that increasing the size of the council could diffuse the power of each individual councilmember, and could be a necessary part of an overall solution that also includes changes in the city council redistricting process (including a truly independent redistricting commission, and a total ban on redistricting commissioners’ ex parte communications with sitting councilmembers), major ethics reforms (including increased transparency, accountability, and penalties for wrongdoing for all city officials), and new protocols for handling city council seats that have been vacated or for which sitting members have been charged with crimes or other kinds of wrongdoing.

Finally, several attendees asked what changing the size of the city council has to do with sustainability (since this event was hosted by the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance), and Quan said that in addition to increasing council offices’ ability to provide community services (many of which are sustainability-related), making districts smaller would help councilmembers city councilmembers focus on issues – such as urban oil drilling – which are especially important to the communities they represent.  It would also likely mean, he said, that groups like Neighborhood Councils and the NCSA could broach policy discussions with councilmembers earlier and possibly make it easier to get them on board to support specific issues or policy recommendations.

And Koretz agreed, mentioning, in particular, the current drive for neighborhoods to take more local control in the development process in their areas.  He said having smaller districts could make it easier for both neighborhood councils and homeowner organizations to engage with their councilmembers on these topics.

Finally, though, Cardenas noted that most of the current recommendations for expanding the city council, and for the ideal size of that expanded council, have come from an interim report  from the Academic Project Team at the LA Governance Reform Project.  She said there are also many other groups researching the subject, however, so more recommendations will be forthcoming from them, too.  And Quan agreed, noting there are also already several different city council motions on the subject, including one specifically on expanding the size of the city council, and one more generally addressing possible redistricting reforms…with potential ballot measure language also under discussion.

Next Steps

Quan said the next steps in this discussion will be reports to the City Council committee working on the issue, during the month of August, and then a vote in September may move the issue out of the committee and back to the full Council.

In the meantime, though, Quan said there’s still time for the public to weigh in with comments, and Neighborhood Councils can also submit Community Impact Statements stating their position on the issue.

Also, if you’d like to watch Sunday’s NCSA discussion in its entirety, a recording is available here.

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Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and has been writing for the Buzz since 2015.

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