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LA’s Poisoned Redistricting Process Spawns Law Suits, Calls for Meaningful Reform

LANCC REPORT - The city is entering into an era of cynical politics characterized by extreme contempt for the public. Nothing makes this clearer than the new redistricting map of City Council seats. The term  "gerrymander" is too kind a term for the mess made by a small cabal of mayoral and city council appointees.
All you have to do is look at the map carved out for Councilman Huizar (CD 14), which resembles a dragon. It is reminiscent of the famous salamander shaped district that was named the gerrymander after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. In fact, the only major difference is that in Huizar's district, the dragon's head faces west instead of east. It's still an unsavory reptile.

How did we get to this point? The City Charter requires that redistricting be carried out every ten years. The Charter further specifies that a commission be appointed by the city's elected officials. Perhaps this was supposed to be a reform, but in practice it makes things worse because it gives City Council representatives political cover for their actions.

The Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Commission (LACCRC) was appointed by the 15 members of the City Council and by citywide elected officials including Mayor Villaraigosa. It's not surprising that politics happened. This is the way of the world when incumbents get to determine their own districts. What is really discouraging, though, is how balkanized the process became.

The Los Angeles procedure was in stark contrast to the statewide reapportionment system, a much needed reform and a breath of fresh air, because the statewide system was largely distanced from the desires of incumbent office holders.

As the LACCRC went through its paces, a series of articles in CityWatch, LA Weekly and the LA Times began to expose how the bloc of commissioners appointed by the mayor, Councilman Huizar, Councilman Wesson, Councilman Alarcon and a few others basically took control.

At this point, those of us who are not hooked into the centers of power began to take notice. The neighborhood councils and their regional coalitions heard discussions, and eventually the subject came up at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC).

One month ago, the LANCC considered the first draft of the redistricting map and rejected it outright. The logic by which reasonable people rejected that map are, by now, well known to anyone who reads a daily newspaper or follows CityWatch. Suffice it to say that the first draft did violence to several long-time relationships including the connection of Westchester to the coastal district and the connection between downtown and south Los Angeles.

LA Weekly had a lot of fun in describing some of the gerrymanders as looking like a turkey or like a US Army tank. But the serious issue was that Herb Wesson's  faction  (he is the president of the City Council) took all the goodies for themselves and left the other city councilmen as beggars. In the case of redistricting, the goodies are the wealthy areas, the places where new development is happening, and the places showing economic growth. If nothing else, these areas are excellent sources for campaign money.

What forced the issue into the open even more was the testimony of Commissioner Helen Kim. Kim has been the subject of a long LA Weekly piece which praised her and the way she exposed the secret insider goings on. (link).

Last weekend, Kim spoke to the Neighborhood Council Coalition about the final map produced by the LACCRC. As she told LANCC, the more innocent commissioners walked into a situation that was more set-piece scenario than honest negotiation. The controlling bloc behaved in a way that suggested they already knew what the outcome was going to be.

She explained that much of the first draft and now the final draft maps are obvious violations of well established rules. Federal and state law are designed to protect the interests of minority groups against power grabs by the majority. This isn't a trivial issue, as prior to the reforms enacted by the Voting Rights Act and other such legislation, African American areas were routinely underrepresented. In addition, incumbents routinely drew districts to protect their own reelection chances, whether or not this served the public interest.

The rules that direct redistricting require certain things of any voting map, which essentially boil down to compactness and contiguity, equal numbers of voters, and minority representation rights. There is a catch though, because those who draft redistricting maps are not required to achieve perfection. In practice, the inability to satisfy some fairness rules may be excused due to the sheer impossibility of the task. The winning side on the Laccrc will claim that they did the best that was possible.

In fact, if you are a glutton for downloading huge files, you can look at the entire LACCRC report. (Warning: this is 42 Mb of download). [link] The first few pages of the report are full of self-congratulations and semi-defensive remarks about how fairly everything turned out. It's when you scroll down to the district maps that you begin to wonder, because the districts are indeed wondrous. They are curlicues wrapped around pastries and thin appendages going here and there. I was not trying to single out Councilman Huizar when I referred to his district at the beginning of this discussion. About half the districts are like this, with CD4 perhaps the most strangely contorted piece of real estate it's possible to imagine.

Commissioner Kim, an obviously studious person, introduced alternative maps in order to demonstrate that such were possible. This is important in terms of future litigation, because the majority cabal will attempt to defend their work against Voting Rights Act challenges by arguing that nothing is perfect, and this was the best that they could do. They will be correct on one of those two points.

LANCC discussed the final map and came to the following conclusion, which was passed by unanimous vote on March 3:

"Whereas, the current redistricting map was created in a manner that does not conform to law and does not serve the interest of the public, LANCC opposes the current map."

In addition, Lancc summarized a list of concerns regarding the process and regarding damage to voter interests created by the Laccrc actions.

What is to be done about this mess?

At the LANCC meeting, we discussed the legal issues. Completion of the redistricting process requires that the City Council pass a redistricting ordinance. It appears likely that the City Council will pass an ordinance that adopts the Laccrc map. It is at this point that things get interesting.

City Council representatives Parks and Perry have already discussed their interest in filing a lawsuit against the new map, on the basis that it violates the Voting Rights Act, state law, and the City Charter. They are joined by members of the Korean-American community as well as by groups from other parts of the city.

However, there is another possible tactic that LANCC also discussed. Ordinarily, an ordinance passed by the City Council is subject to rejection by the voters through the process known as referendum. You can look up the details on the City Clerk's website, but the critical number is 27,425 -- the total number of legitimate signatures required to qualify a referendum.

Unfortunately for the opponents of the current map, there is a catch. The current law puts the redistricting ordinance outside of the possibility of doing a referendum. However, speakers at the LANCC meeting pointed out that the constitutionality of the ordinance is questionable and has never been legally tested. Thus, Los Angeles voters might attempt to overturn the redistricting ordinance that comes out of the City Council if the Council doesn't make serious changes.

The pathway for this kind of litigation would go something like this: As soon as the ordinance is passed, opponents will file paperwork with the City Clerk to take out a referendum petition. At that point, the City Clerk will presumably say that this is not allowed, and the opponents will immediately file a motion in Superior Court to overturn the legal restrictions and the Clerk's ruling.

If this actually were to happen, the opponents would then have 30 days to get the required signatures. Considering the number of people who are seriously annoyed about the redistricting map and the amount of money they are likely to raise in order to hire signature gatherers, it doesn't seem all that unlikely that the redistricting ordinance will go to referendum. It all depends on the legal review.

There are a few other issues that have come up over the course of the Laccrc's deliberations. As their report shows, they did indeed have numerous public hearings, heard from thousands of people, and received over 6000 documents.

The fact that all those Los Angeles residents came to meetings and attempted to give testimony seems to have been in vain though. Based on the final map, we can conclude that the ruling commissioners understood that they were answerable to their masters, and that was that.

What's worse, other members of the commission were fully aware of the problem, and even some who voted in favor of the final map did so only after stating their gripes and irritation. But they seem to have made their bargain with the devil on the basis that they weren't going to do any better, considering the group that had long since ginned up a majority voting bloc.

(Robert Gelfand is the 2012 Chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition and was one of the founders of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council.) -cw

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CityWatch
Vol 10 Issue 20
Pub: Mar 9, 2012

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