ACCORDING TO LIZ - Rumbles of complaints about last year’s City redistricting exploded with the release last fall of the racist recording that led to the resignations of City Council President Nury Martinez and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, and the disgrace of Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin De León.
Councilwoman Nithya Raman then called for the creation of an Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform which was duly set up with replacement City Council President Paul Krekorian as chair.
Concurrently, private philanthropy funded the independent Los Angeles Governance Reform Project, made up of academics to develop reform proposals to “advance a more transparent, accountable, and community-driven City of Los Angeles municipal government.”
In June, they released an interim report to generate discussion and solicit further input between June and September before drafting legislative reform language to present to the City Council by November for possible placement on the ballot in 2024.
Following are some points that I would invite this group, my fellow Angelenos, and the City Council to consider as all parties continue to assess potential improvements to how the City of Los Angeles is governed.
Composition of the team
Much as I admire their credentials, in talking to people across the City about current concerns about the structure and leadership of the City, I am uncertain if a leadership team made up of academics is entirely appropriate to addressing grassroots concerns.
While many good points do come from people who also have strong academic backgrounds, above average wages and a comfortable quality of life, a considerable number of different opinions come from people who could be living on the street next week or next month.
One issue that the six PhDs of the leadership team plus the six PhDs, a Master’s degree candidate and a former program assistant for one of the leadership PhDs are unlikely to share with many Angelenos is the immediacy of basic survival – do I fill my insulin prescription, or do I buy food for the kids?
Many (including myself) with experience in academia tend to over-analyze situations, not provide practical solutions.
The team’s mission was to advise on how to restructure the City to be responsive, accountable, representative and equitable.
Los Angeles is a unique city in too many ways to count. Its founding narratives range from indigenous people to Spanish missionaries and Mexican rancheros, from oil barons to Okies, from Chinese laborers and Japanese businessmen to the Jewish mafia behind “Hollywood” to immigrants old and new, citizenized and undocumented.
Its geography is sculpted by the Los Angeles River and the Santa Monica Mountains, by natural disasters, and by the explosion of highways driven by cheap cars and cheaper gas, by the admixture of orange orchards, movie backlots and real estate developments.
Its existence shaped by the highs and lows of its history, as spun by charismatic if sometimes unethical and budget-challenged leaders.
The waves of migration from the north and the south, from the east and from across the Pacific may have similar overtones to other American cities but the consequences are entirely its own.
While obligatory to consider, relying on the circumstances of other cities that evolved from dissimilar forces, in California and across the US, is not an appropriate approach.
Thinking outside the box is definitely appropriate but perhaps not from people within the box who share so many similar characteristics. Skin color, gender and ethnicity are a very few of the factors affecting Angelenos today.
Economic security and health as has been emphasized in recent discussions on university admissions policies have a much stronger impact.
Does the team include a homeless person? Someone who was recently incarcerated? A woman who raised her grandbabies because the children’s parents were drug addicts, on the street or in prison, suicides? Victims of bankruptcies?
Absolutely an essential aspect of governance reform, especially given the current and historical corruption associated with the City Hall, is ethics. But that won’t change unless the City Councilmembers adequately fund the Ethics Commission and its department.
The formation of the Ethics Commission was a transformative moment in history, not only of Los Angeles but the entire United States. However, our elected officials have become extremely adept at manipulating the purse strings to severely curtail the Commission’s ability to accomplish much beyond the basics.
Certainly not enough to root out corruption from where it starts. At the top.
And the Commission’s hands are too often tied by outside agencies demanding the lead which delays and delays action i.e. the years spent by the FBI documenting every misstep of José Huizar before moving in – to the great detriment of the people of Los Angeles.
Then there are the City departments that try and cover up the misdemeanors of employees, top to bottom, instead of making examples of them to discourage emulation. Why? Too much egg on the face of executives jostling for advantage in the political Olympics?
Or is it just easier to pay them off and make them go away? To the disservice of the department that has lost the asset of their institutional knowledge (and how they gamed the system), the taxpayers who are footing the bill, and anyone who might be lured into hiring them in the future?
And why should the police department hold themselves aloof from the rest? Especially given that pay-outs for their employees’ malfeasance comes at a pretty pricy cost to the taxpayer.
Holding City elections at the same time as those for the County and State may have economic advantages but many of the concerns raised in the months prior to that decision have come to pass. Not to mention that a significant number of the Councilmembers benefited financially from that vote.
In 1909, to curtail rampant corruption and cronyism, a reformist Los Angeles administration banned any form of political partisanship, and scheduled stand-alone elections for the City to limit monetary influence by any parties.
Yes, turnout for Council District elections may be younger, more diverse and include more renters, but so is the electorate. And the political concerns of recent years have impacted these constituencies to a greater extent.
However, the elevated amounts of money sloshing around for Federal, State and County elections further reduces the ability of grassroots candidates to run competitive campaigns.
The CD 4 election in 2021 referenced in the report is a skewed example given the turnout was impacted at least in part by the increased influence of money and relationships when Nithya Ramen built on national issues.
Many of the valuable suggestions made during the 2021 redistricting process including expanding the City Council to make Councilmembers more accountable to their electorate should definitely be revisited especially since clearly neither the advisory committee on redistricting nor the City Council listened to the people.
Too much focus then was on cost, and this report correctly points out that the Council District governance system is, in actuality, a very small share of the City's budget.
One clearcut objective must be to break up the NELA/downtown continuums and similar gerrymandered districts.
Another is how to accurately determine numbers in districts given residents in many areas are undocumented, and many others are being swept in on successive waves of gentrification or forced out by the lack of affordable housing?
Appointment of independent commissioners
Some recommendations on how best to create a fair commission to oversee redistricting now and for the foreseeable future make eminent sense on paper but less in the reality of the City today. The City Clerk’s office is currently too politically involved and understaffed while the Ethics Commission is grossly underfunded to let managing the selection fall to either.
Engaging with political parties and groups which already have agendas to promote is the least appropriate way to organize for a supposedly apolitical electoral system in Los Angeles. That is precisely why party affiliations were banned from the ballot over a hundred years ago and why the City’s elections were scheduled in off-years when there would be reduced partisan pressure and less cash to purchase votes.
How can oversight ensure that selection excludes political agendas or other influence from special interest groups including the pro-development forces so inimical to many residents?
Tapping into Planning Commission and City department administrative divisions because population numbers are similar needs a deeper dive given they tend to be hotbeds of political maneuvering; and totally random seldom for a small group is rarely egalitarian.
Requiring letters of recommendation for commissioners is a questionable and elitist proposal given these will skew educated and wealthy. Even community engagement involvement is discriminatory because too many Angelenos work multiple jobs and don’t have the time, money or energy to participate on a volunteer level.
Civil servants have certain vested interests as has been ably demonstrated over the years at City Hall. They, along with unpaid campaign staffers who tend to have strong political preferences, should be excluded.
Allowing the participation of resident non-citizens is a wise move given their personal investment in their chosen city of residence. On the other hand, arbitrarily excluding all former elected office holders who may have valuable experience to provide, could be hugely detrimental.
Assuming a wide range of background and experience, people should be provided with basic materials upon selection as many will require a longer learning curve to become effective participants. And everyone needs independent legal support before ANY training or discussion to create a baseline from which to commence their work, especially those who believe that they are already knowledgeable.
Is the proposed per diem sufficient to support working adults with families? Is paying wealthy members a wise use of tax dollars?
Oversight of the commission members
Some of the suggestions, such as restricting members from running for office seem inappropriate – the most qualified candidates for the commission will certainly have many of the best characteristics to become superior contenders for political office.
There needs to be some procedure in place – we definitely don’t want a commission to create a framework that prequalifies people with their own credentials to waltz into an office in City Hall – but should not arbitrarily exclude the best and the brightest.
And how realistic is a ten-year term in a city that is constantly changing and reinventing itself? Are members expected to commit to staying in Los Angeles for the next ten years? To not get run over, fall victim to a drive by shooting or, heaven forbid, croak from old age?
Although outside the scope of this report and City governance in general, the LAUSD needs to address shrinking of base and the need to amalgamate services/expenses. And the sooner, the better.
Why select outside City districts once established for the school districts? It’s confusing enough as it is. Hopefully, increasing the number of City districts reducing the gerrymandering and a wiser apportionment will help avoid complexity and facilitate more appropriate divisions.
School and Council Districts should work together.
Politicians’ appointees will be de facto political choices and may not have the interests of the community or, more importantly, the children at heart.
Comment now, comment often
Nonetheless, discussion of this document is a good place to begin the necessary conversations about what Angelenos want to see in their City’s government. The interim report is not an overlong or difficult read.
Just as every vote counts, if you live in Los Angeles read it and put your two cents in to ensure that your government becomes what you envision is needed to make Los Angeles great again.
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)