For a better L.A. City Council, make it bigger

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The Los Angeles City Redistricting Commission, composed of 21 political appointees, has proposed a map of 15 reshaped City Council districts, which probably do what a majority of the current council members, the mayor, the city attorney and the controller intended them to do: They secure districts and fundraising opportunities for favored incumbents; they punish members who act too independently; and they pave the way toward election for various aides and pols who are looking for a start in electoral politics or a comfortable landing place after being termed out in Sacramento. In other words, they turn the worthy goal of redistricting on its head. The commission process has been an utter failure and should be scrapped.

But let’s be honest. Its work was doomed to fail anyway, and not merely because each member of the commission carries the ambition-filled baggage of his or her appointing official. No matter how the districts are shaped or reconfigured, there is simply no way nearly 4 million residents of this packed and sprawling city can be adequately represented by the same number of council members who led a rapidly growing municipality of 576,000 people in the 1920s, when voters expanded the council from nine to 15 members. Yet that’s what we’ve got: A City Council sized for one member to represent 37,000 people, as was the case in 1925. Only now, each member represents a quarter of a million.

And those quarter of a million residents do not come with equal political clout. No council member has ever been elected from Watts, for example, nor have the voters of Watts ever proved decisive in selecting a representative for their district, which includes distant San Pedro. Communities often dismissed as “new,” such as Koreatown — although a community that began its monumental growth in the 1970s should hardly be called new today — are carved up and parceled out as if they didn’t exist. A 15-member council cannot seriously purport to provide adequate representation for Los Angeles.


City Council members and others invested in the status quo will assert that a poor area must be paired with a rich one to get noticed, or that there is some crucial historical link between, say, USC and Westchester 20 miles to the west that require them to be in the same council district. Nonsense. Those arguments are merely evidence that incumbents have figured out how to make Los Angeles’ odd shape work to their advantage. They are not evidence that Los Angeles’ political structure is working to the advantage of its people.

The city’s population has increased fivefold (and its area by about 50 square miles) since 1925. Its City Council should be at least twice as large as it was then. The people of Watts, Boyle Heights, Koreatown and other communities should be able to elect their own representatives. How many? There is little point in fixating on a particular number at this point, although it’s worth noting that Los Angeles has 35 planning areas. Those divisions seem to be a good place to start.

Of course, there are well-practiced objections to such a sweeping change in how Los Angeles is governed. In 1999, when voters finally replaced the 1925 City Charter with an updated document, they rejected separate ballot measures to increase the council to 21 or to 35 members. That conclusion was foreordained when two charter commissions, in a failure of nerve, opted against including a larger council in their joint document. They suspected that voters would zero in on a larger council, see it as an increase in the number of politicians and reject it out of hand without considering that they stood at least a fighting chance of getting a council more responsive to them. There are answers to that, as there are answers to many other objections.

• Do we really want at least 15 additional people raking in salaries of $178,789? Of course not. Those salaries are a quirky result of a 1980s ballot measure in which Los Angeles voters wisely stripped the City Council of the power to set its members’ pay and instead pegged salaries to the pay of Municipal Court judges. But when Municipal Courts went extinct, council pay jumped to the much higher levels of their Superior Court judge successors. Pay should indeed be pegged to that of other public officials, to keep the council from generous self-dealing, but members of a larger council should earn about the same as members of the Legislature: $95,290. That’s very high pay for a public official, and sufficient to attract top-quality candidates. But it’s slightly more than half what council members get now, and appropriate for representing more manageably sized districts. Equalizing that pay should be at least in part a check on the motivations of state senators and Assembly members who eagerly leave their Sacramento posts for spots in City Hall.

•Having an assembly-like City Council would change the nature of what council members do. Well, exactly. In fits and starts, and not without buyer’s remorse, Los Angeles has moved away from a committee form of government toward one in which an elected executive, the mayor, is responsible for getting things done. But the council has rejected its necessary policymaking and oversight role as it continues to plunge into executive functions, cutting development deals and filling power vacuums — meanwhile acting as a group that abdicates its duty to protect the city’s budget and political integrity from overreaches of mayoral power. The current clubby City Council template works well for incumbents and special interests but poorly for Angelenos. A more powerful mayor must be checked by an oversight body, not by a rival for executive power. It’s time for the city to go the next step.

•This is the wrong time, in the midst of redistricting, to talk about a larger City Council. But defenders of the status quo trot out the “it’s the wrong time” objection no matter when the proposal is made. There’s always a reason to foot-drag, whether because it’s election season, or the economy is poor, or we just need to wait and see whether the council will shape up. But there is no bad time in which to put the interests of residents ahead of the interests of the political status quo. In fact, the abject failure of redistricting actually makes this a good time to consider the alternatives. Angelenos are witnessing their city being carved up among power brokers. It’s time to take back the carving knife and divide Los Angeles into more manageable, and rational, sections.