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Editorial: Why redrawing the boundaries of L.A. County supervisors’ districts falls short

Los Angeles County supervisors
Los Angeles County’s five supervisors, from left, Holly Mitchell, Sheila Kuehl, Hilda Solis, Janice Hahn and Kathryn Barger.
(Associated Press; Los Angeles Times)

Several candidates are seeking the 3rd District seat of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who will leave office when her second term ends in December 2022. But none of those hopefuls yet know exactly which 2 million constituents they’re running to represent, because new lines for all of the supervisorial districts won’t be finalized by the county’s Citizens Redistricting Commission for several months.

Will most of the San Fernando Valley remain in the 3rd District, incongruously tied to Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Santa Monica and Malibu? Or will it instead join Burbank as part of the 5th District, which includes Covina, about an hour’s drive to the east during a typical commute, and Lancaster, an hour and a half to the north? For that matter, will district lines continue to run right through Burbank, Canoga Park and Koreatown?

What is also up in the air is how racial and ethnic communities might be carved up among the districts. They have changed markedly since 1990, when a federal court threw out district boundaries and ordered a new election for a seat with more proportionate representation for Latinos, who at the time made up a third of the county’s population. The court found that for decades the all-white, all-male supervisors had repeatedly drawn lines to prevent Latino candidates from being elected. Running in a special election the following year with a redrawn district, Gloria Molina became the first Latino supervisor since 1875.

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But here we are, 30 years later, with the county’s Latinos close to half the population and the San Fernando Valley’s at more than 40%, yet the county still has only one district in which a Latino candidate is likely to be elected.

So should the Valley be carved up and joined with other regions to create a second (or third) Latino-majority district? Or should Latino neighborhoods in Sylmar or Arleta look to Hilda Solis, Molina’s successor in the distant 1st District, when issues arise that join their interests with those of other Latino communities around the county?

Fortunately, county district lines are no longer drawn by the supervisors themselves, so these questions will be answered by the independent commission. But that panel lacks the power to order the most important and the most necessary improvement to representation: Downsize the districts.

The notion that each supervisor can adequately represent 2 million people is absurd. Supervisors allocate billions of dollars in state and county funds and have jurisdiction over the most essential human services, including mental health, public health, child protection and jails, and they have an outsize role in the region’s transportation, water and parks systems. They bear enormous responsibility for the homelessness crisis and its solutions.

Five districts is the exact same governance structure at play in tiny Alpine County, where each supervisor has approximately 250 constituents and presumably knows each one of them by name. Even in San Diego County, the state’s next-largest county after L.A., each of the five districts is only a third as populous as any of L.A. County’s.

Smaller districts mean more accountability, more responsiveness and more opportunity for public input on important decisions. They mean fewer divided neighborhoods.

Smaller districts in Los Angeles County would mean creating more districts, which in turn means electing more supervisors, and that’s been the rub for county voters. Measures to expand the board have come to the ballot eight times since 1926, and voters have said “no” each time, often after campaigns funded or directed by incumbent board members who don’t want to see the reach of their power diminished.

And they are quite correct that the power of each would shrink if they were one of 11, as in San Francisco, which in California is a special case because it is a combined city and county. A larger L.A. County Board of Supervisors would have to act less like a collection of executives with no one clearly in charge and more like an oversight and legislative body — and that, too, would be an improvement, if there were an independent executive to share power, preferably elected.

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The same is true of the L.A. City Council, which like the county is also going through a redistricting process to take into account population changes reflected in the last census. The council has the same number of districts — 15 — that it had nearly a century ago to serve a population that was a quarter of its current size. Among other things, this means that Watts will again be fused to San Pedro despite those two communities being geographically, socially, politically and ethnically distinct from each other.

The L.A. County, city — and school — redistricting processes will be concluded by the end of this year. But they can be only partially effective at improving representation unless voters follow up with a demand for smaller districts and more direct accountability. The status quo is fine only if you think they’re providing the best possible service to their constituents as they are. Chances are, though, that you believe they could do much better.


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