One Way the City Hall Leaked Audio Meltdown Could Have Been Avoided

Cityside Column: Other arms of government chose to stay out of district line drawing. Nury Martinez and her colleagues kept their fingers in the pie

Every single second of the council leaked audio debacle is lamentable. This starts with the poisonous remarks directed at the son of Councilman Mike Bonin and his husband Sean Arian. It then spreads, eventually encompassing the entirety of Los Angeles. Among the many disservices done by Nury Martinez, the now-former Council president’s compatriots, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, and as of Monday, ex-labor boss Ron Herrera, is the fact that they have cast shame across the city.

Step back from the abhorrent racism and hate speech—if that’s even possible—and one of the most distressing aspects in this turn of events is that it was entirely avoidable. I don’t just mean that the four grown-ups should have known better than to spew such bile. Rather, the point is that if city leaders had only adopted some of the sensible tactics that other government bodies employ, everyone would have been spared this pain and embarrassment.

This goes back to long before the foul-mouthed crew and a secret recording device came together in the offices of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. It stems from decisions about redistricting and the need to preserve power by ensuring that those with a vested interest in the results had the final say.

This is both simple and complicated. The short version is that, when given the chance, the City Council, led by Martinez, opted against having an independent body redraw the borders of L.A.’s 15 Council districts—an event that happens once a decade, in the wake of the U.S. Census.

A panel was selected and given the authority to create new boundaries, and the Council members appointed the members of the commission, ensuring they had ties to the process, and could even fire and replace their appointees if they did not like how things were going. The Council also got deeply involved at the end, to the point where they could alter maps to benefit them—to the detriment of others. This includes then-new rep Nithya Raman, whose District 4 was fileted like a caught trout. In the leaked audio, which was recorded in October 2021 as redistricting unfolded, Cedillo dismisses Raman by saying, “She’s not our ally, she’s not gonna help us, her district is not a district we can count on.” That prompts de León to remark, “So you’re saying that’s the one to put in the blender and chop up left and right.” To which Martinez adds, “That’s what they did.”

A different option to get through this thorny process was available. In 2020, the state of California selected a 14-member panel to redraw Congressional and state legislative districts based on population and demographic changes over the previous 10 years—this kept the lawmakers out of the kitchen. Not everyone liked the results and some members of Congress were consequently forced to run against each other, but at least no one walked out believing the system was rigged.

City of Los Angeles leaders could have done the same thing. Instead, they opted to keep their fingers in the pie.

How polluted was L.A.’s process? It was so bad that in its end-of-work report to the City Council, the redistricting commission actually begged the elected officials to junk the system. It included nine recommendations for the future. The first read: “Follow the example of the state of California and many counties and cities, and create an independent, rather than advisory, citizen’s redistricting commission, removing the appointing authority and final decision on redrawn Council District lines from city elected officials.”

There was plenty of criticism at the time, if not the desire to do anything about it. Many Angelenos complained vociferously, including City Attorney Mike Feuer. In a column in November, I described the process as a “cartographic Murphy’s Law.” The headline of an L.A. Times editorial in the fall screamed, “In Los Angeles, political meddling poisons redistricting.”

This is not a situation, by the way, where things suddenly went bad and no one saw it coming. The 2011 line drawing was equally rotten and there were calls for change back then. At that time I titled a Downtown News editorial, “A Redistricting Process That Stinks.” It ended with the lines, “office holders could have avoided this mess by opting for independent cartographers. Maybe the current tumult will inspire them to follow a different process in the future. Maybe.”

This proves two things: 1) I’ll seize any chance to use the word “cartographer,” and 2) If I figured out the problem more than a decade ago, then far smarter people also knew about it, and those with actual power could have done something.

Yet nothing changed after 2011’s redistricting and the very fact that, in 2021, the council members knew from the start that they would maintain a say in boundary drawing allowed them to engage in these Machiavellian machinations. Listen to the audio, and the foursome are clear about their intent to push Latino power, even if it must come at the hands of others.

“My goal in life is to get the three of you elected,” Herrera says in one clip, first posted on Knock-LA. “I mean, we’re like the little Latino caucus of, you know, our own. And we have to find, you know, new folks to bring in.”

Maybe no one should be surprised—the audio clips show how the sausage is made. One can also understand the desire to enhance Latino representation in a city that is approximately 50% Latino, but where only four of the 15 council seats are held by individuals with Latino surnames.

Still, there is a huge divide between hardball politics and smearing Council colleagues and their family. Going where Martinez, de León, Cedillo and Herrera went erases any sympathy. It’s why figures across the political spectrum are calling for them to resign Yet Martinez, who on Tuesday announced she’s taking a leave of absence, still remains on the panel.

So much is so wrong, and one senses there could be more to come—who knows what other recordings exist and what agendas might prompt them to be leaked?

Ultimately, the entire fracas may have been avoided if only city leaders had done what they should have long ago—let people not directly affected by redistricting be in charge of redistricting.

Maybe the redistricting process of 2031 will be truly independent. But that’s a major maybe.

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