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Big City Stretches a Small Council

Frustration over size of districts gives an issue to secessionists. Even some opponents of breakup agree they're too large.

October 20, 2002|Nita Lelyveld | Times Staff Writer

In the official voter's guide to the Nov. 5 election, advocates of both Hollywood and San Fernando Valley independence cite a key reason they think Los Angeles should be broken into pieces: The City Council's members, they say, have districts so large that they cannot begin to represent them adequately.

Each of the 15 council members represents nearly 250,000 people, far more than council members in any other American city. A council district can include residents of so many cultures and points of view that it is impossible for one person to be accountable to them all, secessionists say.

New York, with a little more than twice the population of Los Angeles, has more than three times as many council members: 51. Chicago, with nearly 1 million fewer people, has 50. Phoenix, the city that comes closest to Los Angeles' ratio, still has 81,000 fewer people per council member.

Frustration with the size of council districts is a driving force in the secession movement. Backers of the breakup say council members cannot possibly know their vast districts intimately enough to tackle problems efficiently.

Size, they add, has bred a sense of remoteness, encouraging the council to see itself as something apart from the neighborhoods it represents and encouraging residents of those neighborhoods to disengage from civic life. It's hard to engage, after all, when just getting to a council meeting can mean an hour's drive, some residents say.

Under the secession proposals, a new Valley city would have 14 council members, each representing about 95,000 people, and an independent Hollywood of about 183,000 would have five council members elected at large, or one representative per 37,000 people.

The city's promises of reform do little to soothe. Los Angeles first got 15 council members in 1878, when it was still a farm town of 10,000 people.

The number of council members shrank for a while to nine, but it never grew beyond 15, said James W. Ingram III, a political scientist at San Diego State University.

Today, the population is about 380 times what it was 124 years ago, edging toward 4 million, but the size of the council remains unchanged.

Those who oppose secession argue that size does not dictate quality. They say secessionists' cozier councils, with part-time members living next to those they represent, could not deliver without ample staff and finances.

But some prominent secession opponents say the criticisms are valid and that the council needs to grow.

Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), served two terms as a Los Angeles city councilwoman and opposes secession. But she agrees that districts are too large.

"I think that, at some point, you just get too big to be manageable. I think we long exceeded that here."

As a councilwoman, Goldberg was known for activism in her district, which included Silver Lake, Echo Park and part of Hollywood.

Three of her staff members spent all their time out in the district, helping community groups to organize meetings and articulate their concerns. To reach the district's diverse population, she hired aides who spoke Tagalog, Spanish and Armenian. She and her staff drove different routes each day to work, combing the area looking for potholes and dumped couches.

But even so, Goldberg acknowledges, they could not keep a constant eye on the whole territory. And even though her district was one of the smaller ones, so many people competed for her attention that she usually couldn't visit any one community group more than once.

"We were knocking ourselves out, and we still felt like we scratched the surface," she said.

Secessionists offer a more intimate version of government, in which council members would hold night meetings that all could attend.

Council members in smaller districts, they say, would run into residents at the diner or the supermarket. They'd learn about problems quickly.

Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), who is running for Valley mayor, said there's a term for what happens when people realize there's no way for them to play a meaningful role in their government: rational ignorance. People decide it's rational to be ignorant about their government. Many Angelenos feel that way because they can't get to council meetings, and their representatives spend more time at City Hall than with them, Richman said.

"What happens is that, after a point in time, they give up and say, 'You can't fight City Hall.' When people feel that way, that's how you get independence movements."

"A more local government allows people to become involved. It empowers them to become involved with their governments and to help effect change in their communities."

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