L.A. Politics, 101: The Ultimate Guide to How City Hall Works

Answers to your burning questions on how L.A. governs itself (poorly), why our districts are bigger than Boise (really) and how change could happen (slowly)

The infamous leak in October of a surreptitiously recorded conversation between three top L.A. politicians and a powerful labor leader depicted L.A.’s political sausage-making in vivid and profane detail. The racist comments heard as City Council members Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, Kevin de León, and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera strategized about how to protect Latino power on the 15-member Council prompted an outcry for reforms; demands include mandating an independent redistricting process and expanding the City Council’s size.

What went undiscussed in the aftermath of the leak was how the previous 98 years of L.A. political theater brought those four people together at that moment. To grasp some of the absurdities of our sprawling metropolis requires stepping back and glimpsing the political forest rather than a few burning trees.

Now, with Mayor Karen Bass‘s new administration settling in, we are in an auspicious moment to review some of the vagaries of L.A.’s notoriously convoluted government. Here, as LAMag’s esteemed city politics wonk, I will answer some of the key questions about how City Hall works that you have always been afraid to ask. 

Why does Los Angeles government operate the way it does?

In short, it all stems from the City Charter. In 1924, Angelenos voted in favor of a comprehensive document to define how the growing metropolis would govern itself. Effective July 1, 1925, a mayor-council-commission system was cemented. City leaders are elected and the mayor appoints department heads to various boards and commissions—which is subject to the approval of the City Council. The charter was drafted during the progressive era when the defining goal was to avoid the blatantly corrupt system that was operating in New York. The original charter effort was “a reaction to Tammany Hall big-city politics and patronage, where the party apparatus would give the jobs to friends and supporters,” says George Kieffer, an attorney who heads the Government and Regulatory wing of the Los Angeles-based law firm Manatt and played a leading role in the city’s 1999 charter reform endeavor. “So a movement started to try to make government more professional.”

So, what’s in the charter?

The mammoth document is divided into two sections: Governance and Employee Provisions. Governance includes elements such as defining the powers and duties of various offices, the budget process and detailing compensation for elected officials. On that note, current City  Council members earn about $229,000 annually, and the amount is tied to the annual earnings of a local municipal court judge. The mayor earns 30 percent over that figure. The Employee Provisions section contains important but mind-numbing minutiae on elements such as civil service exams and the pension and retirement system.

Why does L.A. have only 15 City Council members?

Los Angeles was growing quickly a century ago and for those writing the charter, 15 Council members seemed an appropriate number. The 1920 Census had put the city’s population at about 577,000; a decade later, it had ballooned to 1.24 million. So at the time, each member represented about 80,000 constituents. Today, Los Angeles counts almost 4 million residents but the Council has not grown with the population—each member now represents approximately 260,000 Angelenos. The original charter limited Council members to two four-year terms; in 2006 voters approved adding a third term and redrawing district boundaries every 10 years. But the devil is in the details: Sec. 204 (b) of the charter states, “There shall be a Redistricting Commission to advise the Council on drawing of Council district lines.” Note the word “advise.” More on that later.

How big are our districts?

The city of Los Angeles measures about 472 square miles. But the sheer size of a district matters less than its population.

So how big are we talking?

If a single L.A. Council district was its own city, it would be one of the 100 biggest cities in the United States, in the vicinity of Lubbock, Texas with 260,993 residents; cities that all have fewer residents than any single L.A. Council districts include Boise, Idaho; Spokane, Wash.; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Richmond, Virginia. Before he became the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend, Indiana. According to the U.S. Census data, South Bend is the 308th most populous city in the U.S., with 103,353 residents. For a sense of size, disgraced former District 14 Councilman José Huizar represented about two-and-a-half times as many people as Buttigieg.

How does L.A.’s ratio of Council members to constituents compare with other U.S. cities?

There is literally nothing like it and this may not be a situation where bigger is better. According to the National League of Cities, Council sizes across the country range from 5 to 51 members. The number of constituents varies from about 6,300 in Albany to, er…L.A.’s massive 260,000. New York City has 51 council members—this is a city of nearly 10 million, so each member serves about 200,000 constituents. Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million, has 50 aldermen—that’s 54,000 people per politician. Aldermen represent 28 wards in St. Louis, a city of about 307,000 people, giving each one approximately 11,000 constituents.

Can L.A.’s city charter be changed?

Yes—but depending on what one would hope to achieve, there are varying degrees of complexity. Kieffer notes that every few years, city voters are asked to weigh in on the charter, usually over minor tweaks like employment rules for a certain population of city workers. “You do get charter amendments from time to time without a big hullabaloo,” he says. Comprehensive charter reform is a whole other beast and there have been more than a half-dozen failed attempts to update the 1925 document. The focus, Kieffer says, typically involves efforts to grant the mayor more power.

Wait…doesn’t L.A.’s mayor already have plenty of power?

For the 1999 charter reform effort, appointed and elected panels were created to come up with changes. They eventually joined forces to get it passed. A neighborhood council system was instituted and executive power was enhanced, improving life for then-Mayor Richard Riordan. Yet complaints persist that the mayor of Los Angeles has less power than top pols in other cities and that the City Council holds too much sway. Austin Beutner, a civic leader who was the top deputy to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa puts a different spin on it: “People talk about a weak mayoral system,” he says. “But we’ve had weak mayors. People talk about a powerful City Council, but where has the City Council used that power to make progress on the issues?”

If Council districts are too large, why don’t we just vote for a larger Council?

Tried it! Two decades ago, the charter reform teams looked at expanding the Council but various forces made clear that, if it were folded in with overall charter reform, there would be vigorous opposition. Additionally, both commissions conducted polling to take the public’s temperature, and the signs were not encouraging. So the matters were separated. Ultimately charter reform passed by a wide margin, but voters shot down two other measures: one to expand the council to 21 members, and one to boost it to 25 members. 

“The reason, our polling showed, was that people had the view that if they increase the size of council, they would be increasing the size of government, which people didn’t want to do,” Kieffer says.

Was this an isolated case?

Hardly. Los Angeles County is governed by five supervisors who oversee a region with 10 million people. Although the post is nearly anonymous, each supervisor counts approximately two million constituents—more than the population of 14 states. The supervisors help craft a budget of nearly $40 billion; it’s hard to overstate just how much power they hold and it has been this way for more than a century. Meanwhile, county voters have shot down multiple proposals to expand the board, swayed by arguments against a bigger government (the supes, of course, are loathe to relinquish any power they already possess). In 2000, an attempt to expand the board to nine members was rejected by a 2-to-1 margin.

Have recent events made calls for redistricting reform more plausible?

Thanks to the leak of the recording, reform may be on the horizon. Public officials and advocacy groups are clamoring to expand the size of the City Council as part of an effort to bring government closer to the people.

How big should L.A. go?

That may not be the right question to ask first. Wendy Greuel, a former City Council member who served as City Controller and was a candidate for mayor, says people should instead consider what they hope to get from the process. She says that expanding the number of members should be explored, but L.A. probably doesn’t want to go as large as Chicago or New York. 

“I think the most important part, when people talk about expanding the City Council, is always to look at what are the benefits that you would have from that,” Greuel explains. “And to ensure that it’s not just expanding for numbers’ sake but more for representation. Ultimately, what the voters want is responsive government, a transparent government, and a representative government.”

Noted! But a bigger council is coming, right?

Maybe. By the time Angelenos have the opportunity to vote on a bigger council, the heat from the Martionez-Cedillo-de Leon scandal will have cooled. If certain special interest groups worry that having more officeholders will lessen their influence, an opposition campaign could surface. When push comes to shove will voters trust that sitting politicians will advocate forcefully for diluting their power? Just consider the potential impact of mailers arguing against an expansion, or commercials with grainy video and grim voices warning about making L.A. government bigger. “It’s a two headed-monster,” says Greuel. “On one side we want a more representative government, we want more people to be listening to us and be more attentive. But we don’t want to pay more and we don’t want to have that many more elected officials.”

Are L.A.’s Council members feeling any pressure?

In November, Paul Krekorian, who became Council President after Martinez was ejected, formed a new Ad Hoc Committee on Civic Governance Reform, which he is chairing. The five-person panel’s first meeting was on Dec. 8, and Krekorian opened by acknowledging how much the scandals have shaken trust in local government. He stated, “I believe it needs to be our first priority to take meaningful, significant steps to ensure that we can restore that confidence because that is almost a condition precedent to be able to do any of the other important work that we have before us.” The panel’s vice chair, Nithya Raman, had taken to Twitter a week before to advocate for boosting the number of council members, saying it would better connect constituents with their representatives and improve services. “We still need to fix campaign finance and the excess power Council members have over land use and redistricting,” she wrote. If the Los Angeles council size is boosted, then new borders will be needed for more than 15 districts.

Who decides where those new borders will be?

Remember Sec. 204 (b) of the charter? It cites the need for an independent commission that advises the council on redistricting. But in practice, elected officials have almost always had the ultimate say. “Historically, it’s been legislators, whether Congressional or Assembly or what have you, who make these decisions about districts,” says Kieffer. “It was almost unanimous that this kind of a decision is a political decision made by the political body. It was sort of taken for granted for many years.” As it has in Los Angeles, where Council members have seemingly forever carved up territories and fought to keep or grab favored areas. That’s how L.A. got the “Alatorre Finger.”

Wait—what’s the Alatorre Finger?

Decades ago, Councilman Richard Alatorre’s 14th District included heavily Latino communities such as Boyle Heights and northeast Los Angeles. He had part of Downtown, but not Broadway, a lively shopping hub for Latinos from across the region. He thought it would be a natural fit with his district. So in the 1991 redistricting, he maneuvered Broadway out of District 9 and into his territory. Maps showed the new stretch rising north nine blocks… like a finger.

Are redistricting commissions independent of government involvement?

At the state and county level, yes. In the city of L.A.? Nope. A 14-member panel is in charge of creating the state’s Congressional and legislative boundaries. The group has five Republicans, five Democrats, and four members not affiliated with either party. Their work takes place in public and is fraught with competing interests, leading to districts that can be oddly shaped. The results won’t please everyone, which is why some L.A.-based United States Congress members had to scramble for new seats in the recent cycle. Los Angeles County in 2016 removed the Board of Supervisors from having say over the line drawing for the districts; when new boundaries were drawn recently, now-retired and famously liberal Supervisor Sheila Kuehl was furious that the inclusion of San Fernando Valley neighborhoods made her district more conservative. She seemed worried that the updated geography would make it easier for state Sen. Bob Hertzberg to win her seat. (He ran for the post in November, but lost to progressive West Hollywood council member Lindsay Horvath.) But while the state and county gave up redistricting power, L.A. City council members have held on to it.

Are there indications this was not such a good idea?

Absolutely. L.A.’s 2011 redistricting was a case study of how to pollute the process. Elected officials appointed members to a panel that draws the lines, and even those who went in with noble intentions felt the heat. Estela Lopez, currently the executive director of the Industrial District Business Improvement District in Downtown, was appointed to the commission by then-Councilmember Ed Reyes. Lopez recently told me that she felt pressure not from Reyes, but from people tied to more powerful officials. “There were emissaries telling me that I needed to fall in line and get with the program about changing boundaries,” Lopez said. “I said, that’s not what I’m here to do.” Lopez ultimately resigned from the panel, but even if she had stayed, her efforts might have been moot—after the panel finished its maps, the council had several months before final boundaries were adopted. Political slicing and dicing ensued, and there were clear winners and losers. Koreatown was divided among four different districts, angering residents who wanted the power of a larger bloc. Jan Perry and Bernard Parks, who had clashed with Council President Herb Wesson, saw valuable assets and desirable neighborhoods yanked from their districts. In fact, key parts of Downtown were taken from Perry’s Ninth District and put in Huizar’s 14th, perhaps setting the stage for the allegations that Huizar solicited $1.5 million in bribes and kickbacks from developers in the area (Huizar has pleaded not guilty and awaits a federal trial next year). The mess was no secret and there was wide dissatisfaction. Yet the system continued, with an advisory commission and the council retaining change-things-at-the-end power. That kept then-Council President Nury Martinez in the catbird seat, setting the stage for the now notorious secretly taped horse-trading session with her colleagues.

What about 2021’s redistricting? Did that go any better?

Not really. The divisiveness and upheaval continued, with Council members changing their appointees when the going got rough. After the commission submitted its draft map and the City Council took charge, it became a cartographic Murphy’s Law. In the end, Raman, who had won her seat just a year before, saw her district drastically reconfigured, forcing her to serve a whole new set of constituents (“She’s not our alley,” Cedillo says of Raman in the leaked recording.) Marqueece Harris-Dawson fought and failed to get Exposition Park moved into his Eighth District. One success: uniting all of Koreatown in District 10.

Have there been recent calls to change the process?

In the fall of 2020, a coalition of respected groups and organizations including California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters publicly offered 10 suggestions for an independent and transparent redistricting process. In October 2021, Common Cause again called for an independent redistricting commission. “A redistricting process controlled by politicians behind the scenes is fundamentally flawed,” executive director Jonathan Mehta Stein said at the time. No one knew it then, but Common Cause made its plea a few days after Martinez, de León, Cedillo, and Herrera held their infamous secret meeting.

Will the process change?

Maybe. There is certainly momentum for change. Mike Feuer was termed out as city attorney and Mitch O’Farrell lost an election for a third Council term; each had recently called for getting an independent redistricting process up and running. Feuer proposed a charter amendment for the city to create its own independent redistricting commission in 2024. An organization called the Civic Alliance, which includes Kieffer, Greuel, and dozens of other L.A. power players, is strongly advocating for pursuing a process with independent redistricting. Krekorian’s new panel is expected to take up the matter.

Pressure is also being applied at the state level. On Dec. 5, state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo introduced SB52, which would force Los Angeles to turn redistricting over to an independent, 24-person commission, with at least one representative from each council district. Another curveball could come from California Attorney General Rob Bonta. On Oct. 12, after the Council scandal broke, Bonta announced his office would conduct an investigation into the redistricting process “to determine whether there were any violations of state or federal voting rights and transparency laws.”

Will making redistricting independent actually solve these issues?

Independence will improve the process and increase transparency but probably produce no silver bullets. There may no longer be a trio of Council members and their labor pal chopping up districts left and right. But the process still involves people and people have personal aims and proclivities. 

“Is it possible some of those on the commission have their own motivations, no matter how independent they are?” Kieffer asks. “And are those motivations always correct from the public’s point of view? Not necessarily.”

Still, it’s a start and one that could wind up in front of Los Angeles voters in the not-too-distant future.

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