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It's Not About Downtown

June 02, 2002

The City Council will decide this week whether to split downtown Los Angeles between two council districts or leave it in one. The people who live and work downtown overwhelmingly support staying together. It's hard enough, contends Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., to nurture a fledgling downtown revival without having to deal with multiple elected representatives who have competing visions and agendas.

But this decision is about more than downtown. It's about whether city government can change--for the better--the way it does business. What the City Council decides could well influence the other big decision that this one so eerily resembles.

The downtown core is in the 9th Council District, represented by the recently elected Jan Perry. That is where an independent redistricting commission recommended it stay. Councilman Nick Pacheco disagrees and wants a chunk of it for himself on the thin argument that much of downtown was in his mainly Eastside 14th District until the 1970s.

Governments redraw electoral boundaries every 10 years to reflect population changes recorded in the U.S. census. Too often politicians use the exercise to jiggle lines in ways that strengthen their power bases and ensure their reelections. The independent redistricting commission was born of City Charter reform. The 1999 charter made Los Angeles' government one of the few to clear the smoke and move the process from back rooms to open hearings.

Rather than kowtowing to politicians' interests, the commission emphasized preserving, as much as possible, clusters of neighborhoods that had recognizable geographic boundaries or shared concerns. Like downtown.

It is unrealistic to expect that the commission would please everyone; interests sometimes overlap or conflict with population and federal voting rights requirements. Especially controversial was its proposal to pick up a Westside district and drop it into the fast-growing East Valley. But the 21-member commission made the city's political map correspond to something other than political egos, and did it publicly with the public's guidance.

This month, a council subcommittee voted 3 to 2 to ignore its advice and give Pacheco, if not all he requested, at least an important part of downtown that would include City Hall, the old Criminal Courts Building, the California Department of Transportation building, other Civic Center offices and, we should point out, the Los Angeles Times building. This is the kind of political deal-making that charter reform was meant to thwart.

Yes, the redistricting commission is advisory. The City Council can ignore it. That doesn't mean it should. Valley secession advocates say the only way to fix Los Angeles is to break it apart, and they have landed a measure that would do so on the November ballot. Council members have a chance to show voters that it doesn't take such a drastic step to get government to change.

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