LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles should add 10 more city council members, create two independent redistricting commissions and establish a more powerful ethics commission, a panel of academics exploring reforms for the scandal-plagued city government said Thursday.
The Los Angeles Governance Reform Project shared its recommendations just days after yet another councilman — the fourth in recent years — was charged with a felony, this time for embezzlement and perjury. The group, made up of academics backed by philanthropists, formed last year after leaked recordings revealed several council members making racist remarks as they discussed redistricting.
“I don’t think anyone has forgotten that the moment is now for change," said Ange-Marie Hancock, a co-chair of the reform group and a professor of gender studies and political science at the University of Southern California.
The group eventually wants to put proposals before voters on the November 2024 ballot.
City Council members in Los Angeles control the redistricting process, which happens once every 10 years and determines what neighborhoods politicians represent.
“There’s a lot at stake in redistricting in LA because the districts are so large, and the council positions are so significant, and it becomes a way of thinking about the representation of diverse groups,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a member of the reform group and executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at the California State University, Los Angeles.
Governance advocacy groups like The League of Women Voters and Catalyst California argued that two independent redistricting commissions are necessary in light of the chaos that engulfed the city following last fall's recordings between council members who control the redistricting process. The recordings featured several Latino lawmakers talking about ways to protect their own political power. The leak prompted calls for their resignations, only one of whom stepped down.
Past efforts to reform how Los Angeles draws political maps haven't been successful. In 1999, the city created an advisory commission, but it is only consulted on an optional basis.
The Los Angeles Governance Reform Project recommends creating two independent redistricting commissions made up of city residents from a variety of backgrounds. One would focus on drawing city council districts, while the other would focus on districts for Los Angeles Unified School District Board members. The state of California operates an independent redistricting commission that sets state legislative maps.
Kathay Feng of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, said these reforms would lessen the cynicism city residents feel about their fates in the hands of few leaders.
“Either we’ll all divide up into our fiefdoms, or some people who have more power will have the things that they want and others will not. And I think it’s important for us to demonstrate that we can create governance systems even through this redistricting commission, that is reflective of the better angels that we want to be,” Feng said.
The Los Angeles Governance Reform Project's second recommendation is to increase the number of city council seats from 15 to 25. Twenty-one would represent specific districts, while four members would preside at-large. That hybrid system is used by several cities like Seattle, Houston, Atlanta and Philadelphia, and in California’s state redistricting commission.
Los Angeles, a city of nearly 4 million people, is represented by 15 city council members. That is compared to 51 who represent New York, a city of about 8.5 million people. Chicago, home to nearly 2.7 million people, has 50 aldermen representing the city.
The reform group argued that smaller districts improve representation because council members would have fewer constituents to oversee. The distance between the citizen and his or her representative is smaller when the number of people represented by each individual is smaller, the panel said.
“As we speak today, there are 260,000 souls in every city council district and Los Angeles. To say that this stretches the definition of local representation as it was understood by our founders would be an understatement,” said Gary Segura, a member of the reform group and a professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The group didn't include a cost estimate for expanding the city council.
The group's third recommendation is to enhance the city Ethics Commission's authority. That would be done by disallowing the council to amend proposals offered by the ethics commission and giving the commission the power to put its recommendations directly on the ballot. These recommendations were made to heighten accountability, members of the group said.
All of the proposed reforms are far from certain to be adopted. The group plans to seek community feedback and conduct a city-wide public opinion survey to see how voters and residents feel about the ideas.
Then, the panel will review the suggestions and make changes before eventually proposing language for the 2024 ballot. Sonenshein said he hopes the City Council would approve putting the measures before voters, but the group could also try to get them on the ballot by collecting voter signatures.
Los Angeles has an opportunity to create better systems for representation, said Michael Li of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, who works on redistricting.
In Los Angeles, ethnically diverse populations are increasingly inhabiting the same voting districts, and they are engaging in conversations around shared representation differently than they are other major cities, he said.
“These groups are coming together, they’re forming coalitions, they’re deciding if they have a shared identity or not,” Li said. “Multiracial politics of the future are still being written, and LA is a center point for that.”
The complexities of determining political representation in such a diverse city — nearly 200 languages are spoken — was at the center of the leaked recordings that caused an uproar last year.
Sara Sadhwani, one of the scholars on the reform committee and a member of the state's redistricting commission, has seen the discussion over redistricting play out for years and often end with legislators unwilling to give up the power to draw their own maps. But the backlash to the tapes may have provided an opportunity for change, she said.
“We recognize that there’s some real troubles,” Sadhwani said of current system. “It creates this kind of jockeying for power that no longer holds true to the values that we have as Californians who want to live together with one another in coalition."
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