LA City Council redistricting and audio leak, explained

Unlike state legislators and Los Angeles County supervisors, LA City Council members have the power to draw the lines for the districts they represent. It is a power to decide not only which voters they will represent, but also which businesses, institutions, parks and other public assets.

Now the political careers of former Chairman of the Council Nury Martinez and board members Kevin De Leon and Gil Cedillo are in danger because a recording leak revealed a racist and mean talk they had stood on how to exercise that power. But the recording also brought to light a little-known aspect of redistricting: the gerrymandering of assets or the manipulation of district maps so that a business or major public facility is placed in a particular council district.

How does the process work and why are members competing for “assets” in addition to voters?

Here’s a quick look at the redistricting in Los Angeles, along with some insights from pundits and elected officials on the political incentives at play.

How does LA draw district lines?

The process is dictated by Article 204 of the city charterwhich calls on the council to pass an ordinance every 10 years to redraw district lines to reflect the last federal census. Districts are to “contain, as much as possible, equal shares of the total city population”, comply with state and federal requirements and “to the extent possible”, keep neighborhoods and communities intact, build on natural boundaries or street lines, and be “geographically compact”.

The only other hard and fast rule: redistricting cannot undo past elections. “No alteration of the boundaries or location of a district by redistricting shall have the effect of abolishing or terminating the term of any member of Council before the expiration of the term for which the member was elected” , indicates the charter.

The charter calls for a 21-member commission to advise the council on redistricting, but it is not independent like the state and county commissions are. Instead, its members are handpicked mostly by elected officials, with each council member, the mayor, city attorney, and city comptroller choosing one to three of their appointees. The commission holds public meetings and comes up with a new district map, but the council has the final say on where the lines are drawn.

During the last round, the commission presented its map last year on October 29, but just over a week later the board approved a modified project which rejected a number of changes requested by the committee The Martinez district. The board held two public hearings as required by state law, and on December 7, it formally adopted the project.

The fundamental objective in the demarcation of districts is to give equal weight to the vote of each person. It starts by putting a roughly equal number of people in each district.

But the test is not just the number of people in a district, but also their race and ethnicity. Under federal suffrage law and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, redistricting cannot dilute the voting power of racial and ethnic groups. This is why many court battles on district maps have focused on demographics.

The judges governed in 2019 that political gerrymandering—that is, drawing lines to maximize the political power of the dominant party—cannot be challenged in federal court, but it may run counter to some state constitutions. And while district cards that create safe seats for cardholders can hurt communities economically, like a 2018 study foundthe Voting Rights Act does not require economic effects to be considered in the redistricting process.

Why does it matter which district has which assets?

The redistricting process has “long been about assets as well as demographics,” said Wendy Greuel, a former council member and former city comptroller.

For neighborhood residents, there is no direct benefit when the boundaries change to include or exclude a park, airport, or large business. The assets themselves do not move closer or further apart.

A district also sees no change in the municipal services or investments it receives when redistribution brings assets in or out. A district’s share of the local government budget is not determined by the amount of sales or property taxes generated within its boundaries.

The main reason for the fight over assets, said Jonathan Mehta Stein of California Common Cause, is the political benefits they can bring to a board member. “It all comes down to campaign fundraising and building power,” said Stein, who is the group’s executive director.

These benefits are two-fold, Stein said. First, having a business or shopping center in your neighborhood puts you in touch with business owners who want to curry favor with you, which translates into campaign donations. And second, having a strong asset such as a major event space or a high-profile company gives you the opportunity to rub shoulders with VIPs and powerful figures in the state.

“You build your networks; you build your Rolodex,” he said.

What the call revealed council members “were trying to strengthen the political power of one racial or ethnic group at the expense of another,” Stein said. “But their own interest in the future of their political careers was also at stake amid all the racism. … When they try to secure economic assets in their districts or the districts of their friends, they try to secure a path to more power, more influence and higher positions for themselves and their friends.

Economist Christopher Thornberg, founder of Beacon Economics, said that with an asset like Arena“you can definitely play with the big boys; you dance with AEG. From a political showmanship perspective, he said, “there’s real value in that.”

As a board member, “you want big-money people in your district,” Thornberg said, so when you say, “My charity over there really needs help,” with a wink eye and a nudge, the wallets open. (He refers to a controversial practice known as “forced donations”.)

Still, some officials insist that assets can provide important indirect benefits to residents of a neighborhood. That’s why City Atty. Mike Feuer thinks a discussion about fair asset allocation should be part of the redistribution process. (He also argues that board members should have no say in the process — more on that later.)

According to Feuer, a major asset “helps to create a magnet for employment and employment, which is a very important issue”. As more developers look to build in this area, Feuer said, you can use your land-use authority to negotiate more affordable housing, local labor and, potentially, jobs. off-site benefits such as parks and recreation facilities.

“You can imagine any range of public improvements,” he said. “There are many public benefits that someone with significant authority over a major asset may seek to impose as a condition of further development there.”

This is what happened around Arena and the USC campus, which helps explain why these two areas have been the target of redistricting fights in recent cycles.

Greuel said a major asset can be useful even when no development is involved. If you have AEG’s LA Live in your neighborhood, she says, that means you can “go to AEG and say, ‘I need you to fund this program that will help my residents. “If you don’t have such businesses in your territory, ‘You can’t go to them and ask them for money for this cleaning program or to help the children in your neighborhood,’ she said. declared.

Having city-owned property in your neighborhood can also be a boon, Greuel said, because if the city sells it, you can redirect the proceeds to projects there.

What’s the next step for redistricting?

Atty from California. General Rob Bonta announced on Wednesday that his office would be investigate the process of redistricting the city in light of the audio leak. He mentioned the possibility of “civil or criminal” liability, but it’s unclear what that would mean for the new district map the council approved last year.

Feuer wants the city to move to a truly independent commission to draw district lines that council members couldn’t change to their advantage. “If you leave in the hands of elected officials the power to determine their own political constituencies, that’s a recipe for conflicts of interest and an invitation to behind-the-scenes deals,” Feuer told reporters on Wednesday.

The creation of an independent commission would force voters to change the city charter through a ballot. Because the current lines are “marred,” Feuer said, he thinks voters should be asked to approve two new line-drawing exercises: one next spring to use the county’s independent redistricting process to temporarily draw new lines, and one in the 2024 general election. creating the city’s own independent commission and doubling the number of council districts, among other major changes.

Stein of Common Cause said the state, county and city of Long Beach have proven the independent commission model works. If the council does not come up with a ballot measure to bring about change, he said, “we will begin to organize with our allies to impose independent restrictions on the ballot in 2024.”

However, he was unconvinced by Feuer’s idea of ​​adopting a temporary card next year. “On the one hand, it’s good to recognize that these districts are corrupt and to use an independent process to redraw them,” Stein said. “But at the same time, you have to be aware that mobilizing the community [to draw new district lines] takes months of education and engagement by local advocates and organizations. And it’s really hard to muster the time and the ability and the energy to do it over and over and over again. We just want to think about how we approach the next steps.

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