Can Anything Be Done About L.A.’s Ginormous City Council Districts?

Cityside Column: In the wake of the City Hall recording scandal, baby steps are being taken to add more council members

Eight months after the reveal of a racist recording shook Angelenos’ trust in government, there is one thing most people agree on: The power to redraw the boundaries of the 15 City Council districts should be yanked from the hands of the council.

The now infamous October 2021 discussion in the headquarters of the L.A. County Federation of Labor was called so that Council President Nury Martinez, councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, and union leader Ron Herrera could hash out strategy and priorities for the decennial border drawing, also known as redistricting. Although the council for decades had quietly manipulated the process, including having final approval, the odious conversations during the meeting shone a spotlight on its dark magic.

The recording was released a year after it was secretly made, and now Martinez, Cedillo and Herrera are out of the political picture, de León faces a bear of a re-election, and everyone accepts that redistricting should be done by an independent panel.

There’s something else most people agree on: The 15-member city council, with each elected official representing about 265,000 constituents, needs to expand. From there, things get tricky. While there is consensus that boosting the body would make government more accessible, there is no acceptance on how big to go.

Proposals are all over the place. On the low end is a rearrange-the-deck-chairs approach of adding as few as two or four positions. At the other end is a call to be like New York City, where 51 council members each represent about 173,000 constituents; or Chicago, with 50 aldermen, or one for every 55,000 residents.

Studies are being conducted. Discussions are being held. Veteran political watchers and average Angelenos are weighing in.

The council itself is enmeshed in the conversation. An Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform was created last year and has embarked on a road show. That included an April 20 “listening session” in South Los Angeles, where the topic was specifically council size.

It was an intriguing event, with members tossing around a variety of ideas, a lot of thoughtful community input, and a vibe that at times felt like looking at trees instead of the entire forest. I listened to the entire two-hour 15-minute event, because I’m that kind of political geek, but I wasn’t the only one.

“There’s the prevailing narrative that this is insider baseball, only nerds care about this,” said committee member and District 8 rep Marqueece Harris-Dawson. But, he noted optimistically, “We had a full room today.”

It’s bonkers that L.A. is in this position. As a presentation from the city Chief Legislative Analyst noted, it was 99 years ago, in 1924, that the Council expanded from nine to 15 members. The body has not grown since, even though the population of the city has quadrupled to nearly 4 million residents. The result, as council president and committee chair Paul Krekorian noted at the meeting, is that any single district would be the 16th largest city in California. As I wrote in December, each district would also rank as one of the 100 most populous cities in the United States, larger than municipalities such as Spokane, Washington.

The CLA report examines numerous options, such as whether to pick a new panel size and stick with that, or to choose a ratio—say, one council rep for each 150,000 or 200,000 residents—and then reconfigure the council size every 10 years, following the U.S. Census. Which is a recipe for political chaos. Mentions were made of complicating factors, everything from how boosting council size would require increasing staff at support departments such as the CLA, to how there would need to be more offices in City Hall, which is a simple fix.

There seemed little desire to go the New York or Chicago route, with some council members seemingly concerned about having their immense power diluted. Krekorian went in the other direction, worried that this could give too big a cudgel to the council president.

“If you have 50 council members the council president becomes much more powerful,” he said, “much more than average members, because somebody has to run that large, inefficient, herding-of-the-cats operation. I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

The discussion was well-intentioned, but there are also raised eyebrows—after a series of City Hall scandals, people are wary of letting politicians, even the good ones, be in charge of altering a system of government where they have a vested interest in the outcome. While certain pols will keep the citizenry front of mind, does anyone believe that all council members will separate what is best for L.A. from what is best for their political futures?

That’s where outside parties become interesting. In February a group of academics and civic leaders announced the formation of the L.A. Governance Reform Project, and they are working on policy recommendations for an independent redistricting process, with a look at council size potentially coming later. Another group of local leaders, the Civic Alliance, is also wading into the waters.

Pay attention to how findings from these and other good government groups are received by current lawmakers. If there is a polite thank you and the report is shelved, be concerned.

The whole council conundrum could actually be solved easily, because while the matter is complex, it is also not rocket science: The current 15 members is way too few. Fifty is indeed unwieldy. Instead, break Los Angeles into 30 council districts, each with about 132,500 constituents. That allows for more representation for communities of interest, and the ability for Angelenos to better connect with their elected rep, without creating a giant political ant colony. The devil of details such as pay and staff size can be hammered out.

What also must be remembered is that picking a new council size is just step one. Actually enacting the change requires voter approval, and that is not simple. Even if expanding the council sounds like a logical step to enhance accountability, opponents who want to preserve the status quo could claim it would just mean bigger government. Indeed, such a tactic was used to shoot down a council expansion vote back in 1999.

District 4 councilmember Nithya Raman, a leading advocate of governance reform (she is vice chair of the new committee), mentioned that defeat at the meeting.

“People didn’t want more politicians in Los Angeles. There was real resistance to that,” she noted. Making the change, she added, will require that a vast swath of people, “really need to step up and do that outreach and make the case for this to the public.”