Town of 855 Takes Its Politics Seriously

Times Staff Writer

It's been said all politics is local. In Bradbury, it's really local.

The mayor, Edwin G. Schuck Jr., captured his post a few years ago with 31 votes, besting his rival by eight.

It's not surprising then that the biggest electoral issue in town is measured in small increments: How can the five City Council members best represent the interests of 855 citizens?

The answer is tricky because Bradbury -- a 1.9-square-mile hillside community of rambling estates and horse corrals in the San Gabriel Valley -- elects its council members by district, not at large. The issue confronting the city today is whether to redraw the district boundaries.

Schuck guesses that he represents up to 400 people, and that, in Bradbury's world of micro-politics, is the problem.

Other council members represent about 100 people, leaving Bradbury's electoral system out of balance.

"We want to make sure we have one man, one vote representation," said Schuck, who represents District 1, a gated community with lots ranging from five to 100 acres.

Most of Los Angeles County's 88 cities elect their councils at large, meaning any voter can vote for any council candidate.

Only Bradbury and nine other municipalities vote by district, usually big cities such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Even the second smallest city voting by district, Redondo Beach, has 63,000 residents.

Redistricting is often implemented to increase minority political representation, and governments and advocacy groups have spent millions of dollars on bitter redistricting battles nationwide.

An entire industry of consultants and number crunchers has evolved to devise redistricting formulas.

So Bradbury, electorally speaking, is in a class by itself. Its current dilemma leaves redistricting experts dumbfounded, or at least chuckling.

"There are apartment complexes in Los Angeles bigger than Bradbury," said veteran political consultant Rick Taylor.

"This is what we've sunk to? Here's some advice for them: Don't spend too much time or energy, [or] God forbid hire a consultant to draw the lines. You can do it in an afternoon at the coffee shop, if there is one in Bradbury."

As a matter of fact, there isn't. There are no restaurants, no supermarkets, no gas stations.

The lush hillside community has only homes -- most of them mini-mansions or more -- and stables filled with horses. Residents rarely see their neighbors, except when riding on a tangle of horse trails.

Although no one knows exactly why city founders set up districts when they formed Bradbury in 1957, the current council has a duty to ensure that the boundaries reflect recent changes in the city's population, Schuck said.

Although latest census figures show that the number of people living in Bradbury has shrunk by about 70, Schuck and other officials are certain that the population tops 900.

Determined to prove it, they sent out their own census forms two weeks ago.

Once the numbers are tallied in the coming weeks, Schuck believes the data will show that his area -- with a modicum of streets with names such as Bliss Canyon Road and Furlong Lane -- has 360 to 400 residents, making it substantially larger than the city's four other districts.

If Schuck's suspicions prove accurate, the council will consider either redrawing the boundaries to roughly 170 constituents or adding a couple more council seats.

Councilman Richard G. Barakat, who represents the half-acre to 5-acre lots of District 3, said he will suggest a third alternative: abolishing the boundaries altogether.

"Our focus should be on what benefits the city as a whole, and not what benefits our individual districts," Barakat said.

But the mayor has bristled at that suggestion, saying the districts are part of city tradition.

"Historically, that's all we've ever had, so we're used to it," Schuck said. "We want to avoid citywide politics, where you might get geopolitical conflicts. With the system we have now, we have managed to avoid that."

Besides, Schuck said, "Each district brings a special perspective to the table."

Bradbury may be small, officials say, but its neighborhoods are distinctive.

For example, the city's grandest mansions sit on hillsides behind locked gates in Schuck's district.

To the east, ranch-style homes dominate Woodland Lane, a gated area in District 2.

Anyone can drive around Districts 3 and 4, and check out the houses -- some older and in need of repair -- on land ranging from a half acre to 12 acres.

In District 5, residents live in tract homes, with no horses or room to roam.

"I call my district Baja Bradbury," said Councilwoman Bea LaPisto-Kirtley, who represents the southeast corner of town. "It's just a lot with a house."

At the moment, she supports the mayor's bid to reapportion the city, though she is toying with the idea of backing Barakat's controversial effort to eliminate the districts. She adamantly opposes adding more seats to the council.

"Pretty soon our City Council will be larger than our entire population," she said.

Besides, she added, it is not as if there are a lot people vying to get on the council.

In recent years, the city has canceled elections because no one ran against the incumbents. And usually, only 50 or so people per district vote.

Steven Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor, said he is "flabbergasted" that Bradbury officials are concerned with redistricting.

"It seems like parcel politics at its worst," he said. "The 20-acre folks don't want to go in with the half-acre folks? Come on, most of the people in California can't even afford to buy a house. Do the horses get to vote? Because this sounds like a bunch of horse manure to me."

Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents more than 250,000 people in his Hollywood-based district, said that perhaps French political philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau put it best when he suggested that democracy can only be achieved by people who can see each other "around a tree."

"Maybe Bradbury is the place where they are achieving true democracy," he said. "I look forward to the day when each and every one of us can be engaged in such a battle."

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