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L.A. Redistricting Enters Final Stages

Ryan Faughnder |
March 2, 2012 | 5:13 p.m. PST

Executive Editor

Final redistricting map proposal
Final redistricting map proposal
The drama over the redrawing of Los Angeles' City Council districts is heading swiftly into its final act. Council President Herb Wesson is pushing for a vote on the final map by March 16, though the official deadline is not until June 30. This has been met with angry responses from some council members such as Bernard Parks, who has characterized the remapping as “racially motivated.” 

The redistricting process has been criticized for gerrymandering and a lack of transparency. It has sparked much acrimony for minority groups, particularly African-Americans in South L.A. and residents of Koreatown. The City Maven has a complete breakdown of the proposed district lines. The map moves most of Downtown out of Jan Perry’s 9th District and into Jose Huizar’s 14th. It places all of Koreatown in District 10.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is head of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute (PBI) of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. He is an expert on L.A. government affairs. Neon Tommy contacted him for an evaluation of the redistricting cycle.   

Neon Tommy: It seems Wesson’s really trying to get this current proposal through quickly. What do you make of the situation? 

Raphael J. Sonenshein: They’ve had a lot of controversy with the proposal. I think they have enough votes on the City Council to pass it, and they don’t want there to be a public outcry. They’re holding a pretty small number of hearings, and I think their goal is to get it through as fast as they can before some of the complaints develop strength. There were some problems with the commission, with the process and with the outcome, but if they have the votes on the council, they’re not going to wait. 

NT: It’s interesting looking at the public hearing schedule, with one in Van Nuys, one in Downtown and one in San Pedro. Downtown is the only one of those that’s really contested. 

RJS: They carefully seem to have picked places where they know they won’t get a lot of trouble. The perfect example is San Pedro, because the nature of redistricting is that the 15th District is never a subject of discussion. You have to begin drawing it there until you get to the right number of people and then you stop. There are no real options with San Pedro. Now I think a lot of people will travel to these hearings to protest. But they certainly aren’t going to hold one in Koreatown and they probably aren’t going to hold one in Baldwin Hills. Clearly, they’re trying to just hold a few hearings and move it along. 

NT: Koreatown’s interesting, because the commission has agreed to put all of it in one district—the 10th. So what’s at issue there?

RJS: What’s at issue is that some of the people there—and not everyone is united on this stuff—want to be connected with Thai Town, which would move them toward the 13th District. For some of them it would be better strategically to be in the 13th than the 10th. And that’s why, even though it looks like Koreatown won’t be split up, there’s still some discontent. 

I think some of the discontent with the process is coming from the sense that there were some things that happened pretty quickly that weren’t as transparent as they could’ve been. The commission made some very good decisions, but in other cases, the politicians on the council seem to have been able to impose the internal council politics on the lines, especially against Councilman Parks. That’s left a feeling about this process that will probably linger after it’s done.

NT: It’s one of the few times we really see this City Council's dirty laundry being aired out in public. 

RJS: The advantage of having a commission, which was set up by the charter reform in 1999, is that at least some part of it has to be transparent. If this had been done without the commission, then the council would’ve just carved everything up. They would’ve held some public meetings, but it would’ve been even less transparent. 

I’d say the downside is it was transparent enough to where people could see some of the bad things happening but not so transparent that you could keep those things from happening. It has a sort of puzzling outcome. You have a good commission with some very good people on it. But it’s going to leave a bad taste.

NT: That bad taste seems to obscure the important issues being dealt with. 

RJS: Well, what it also obscures is that the commissioners worked very hard. They were well organized, held a lot of public hearings, heard a lot of complaints and made adjustments based on those complaints. So in some ways, I feel bad for the commissioners. 

NT: How so?

RJS: A lot of what a commission is supposed to do is listen to the public and respond. And they did their homework.

I think the mistake they made is that they decided to draw the lines in secret committees. No matter what you do at that point, people will assume the worst. I think they would’ve been better off if they had done everything in public.

NT: What’s your sense of the arguments by Bernard Parks and Jan Perry against the new maps?

RJS: Well, their argument is with Herb Wesson, and as near as I can tell it’s not a good idea to use redistricting to settle political scores. To my knowledge, it’s not illegal, though it’s probably bad government. What they’re both arguing is that the council is taking historically African-American neighborhoods and pulling apart some of the elements that give them some variety in terms of class and occupations. But really, at the end of the day, I think it’s mostly to get at Parks for being on the outs with the leadership.

NT: Who comes out on top?

RJS: I guess the council president. He probably had the most influence over the process. But it may turn out to be somewhat of a pyrrhic victory in that it calls attention to an approach to redistricting that in the long run might not be the healthiest way to do it. I think it’s going to require a more thorough examination of the redistricting process. 

NT: What good would come of that? 

RJS: I think in the next round of redistricting, if you have a commission, it has to be totally transparent. You can’t have any line-drawing in private. They’re going to have some boundaries and goals about the relationship of the council members to the people on the commission. You can’t really keep them out—that’s not realistic. But if someone’s district is being changed in a way that clearly is aimed at that person politically, then there should be a pretty high barrier to that.

Some people argue for having a citizen commission like in Sacramento. Others would argue that you could reform the current system. It’s either going to have to be reformed or fundamentally altered. But I think it could be reformed successfully.


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