The Los Angeles City Council's creation of an additional Latino seat will only temporarily quell arguments over redistricting in the city. A minority that represents more than 30% of the city's population will not be content for long with occupying 13.3% of the council seats.
But the current arguments over redistricting are only symptomatic of a citywide problem affecting Anglo as well as minority communities. Throughout the city an impression exists that the council is not responsive to local concerns--concerns that the council all too frequently sacrifices to special interests, especially those accompanied by large campaign contributions.
This cynicism and fundamental distrust of the council is primarily the result of geography and arithmetic. A single council member simply cannot be responsive to the more than 200,000 people in his or her district. Local government in Los Angeles is typically seen as aloof and unconcerned with community issues. The council member is perceived by the public as sitting safely in power, secure in the knowledge that, once an incumbent, virtually nothing can result in removal from office.
Problems may fester for years in a community. A member who is unresponsive to those issues can sit back and enjoy the perquisites of office knowing that, because of the size of the district and the resources necessary to unseat him or her, no adverse consequences will result from a failure to address those problems. Although many council members are truly dedicated to serving the public interest, enough instances of unresponsiveness exist to cast a cloud over the entire body.
Yet a solution could be achieved with relative ease: Double the number of council seats from 15 to 30. Reducing the population size of districts from 200,000 to 100,000 would resolve several problems.
First, it would eliminate the gyrations that currently are necessary to achieve some semblance of minority representation in the city. Using maps taken from community plans developed by the city Planning Department, a minimum of six districts would have majority Latino populations.
Doubling the number of council seats would have another beneficial effect: It would make the incumbent more vulnerable, and therefore more accountable. Currently, a candidate must contact the more than 40,000 active voters in his district. Such a task is virtually impossible to achieve on other than a mass basis, and that translates into big money.
But the 20,000 active voters in a smaller district could be contacted on a more personal and less expensive basis. For instance, mailings to active voters would become much cheaper. A dedicated candidate with a strong grass-roots organization can meet and talk with many if not most of the voters during a campaign. And a viable campaign could be conducted for aslittle as $25,000 to $50,000.
Districts that are more homogeneous would also result in more communication between groups within them. They would know when a council member wasn't doing a job, and typically would be vocal enough to communicate that dissatisfaction to both their members and the council member.
There is nothing sacred about the number 15. When the city was incorporated in 1850, there were seven council members. In 1889 the number was increased to nine, representing a population of about 100,000. In 1925 the number grew to 15, to serve a population of 750,000.
The population is now four times what it was in 1925. And the council has become a sanctuary for professional politicians, some of whom are more concerned with preserving their personal power than with responsibly serving the needs of a growing and complex city.
The expansion could be accomplished with no additional cost. Each of the council members has an annual budget of approximately $600,000--including all wages, facilities and operations. Each of the proposed 30 council members would have a budget fixed at $300,000--double the representatives at no additional cost.
Simply shaping and reshaping the existing 15 council districts would not, and could not, resolve the problem that the U.S. District Court has forced the council to address. Only by dramatically expanding, by opening up what for too long has been a closed system, can the City Council adequately and responsibly represent all the people of Los Angeles.