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In L.A., redistricting done wrong

Editorial

The latest flap over the City Council maps is a strong argument for changing the process.

August 12, 2012
  • City Council President Herb Wesson, seen above at a City Council meeting in March, told a group of Baptist ministers that the city was divided into factions, and that he was "able to protect the most important asset that we as black people have, and that's to make sure that a minimum of two of the council people will be black for the next 30 years."
City Council President Herb Wesson, seen above at a City Council meeting… (Los Angeles Times )

At long last, Los Angeles may have been treated to some candor about this year's redistricting process. In a videotaped discussion that was the subject of a Times story Wednesday, City Council President Herb Wesson told a group of Baptist ministers that the city was divided into factions, and that he was "able to protect the most important asset that we as black people have, and that's to make sure that a minimum of two of the council people will be black for the next 30 years."

The trouble is that federal law bars district lines being drawn for the primary purpose of protecting or enhancing the voting power of particular racial groups (although that power can be considered among other factors).

Wesson's statements may end up being cited in a federal suit challenging the final maps, but regardless of the outcome, Angelenos should by now recognize the gap between the official story about redistricting — that the process was transparent and decisions were made publicly — and the all-too-obvious reality: Line-drawing was the result of backroom deals, using private criteria, and Wesson and the other officials who drew the maps protected themselves from accountability for their decisions by cynically hiding behind their redistricting commission appointees. Some of those appointees no doubt intended to be independent; others no doubt knew full well they were on the panel to do the bidding of the elected officials who appointed them.

Perhaps Wesson and others were actually working to preserve black voting power, or to blunt Asian or Latino voting power. It appears at least as likely that they were using their redistricting power to punish enemies and reward friends and supporters. The old way, in place in Los Angeles until 2001, was more honest: City Council members would broker their deals without a commission covering for them, and the rest of us would know whom to credit or blame for the final decisions. Even better was the method employed last year by the state: A truly independent commission held its hearings and made its decisions without fear of being overridden by the Legislature. The city needs to go back or move forward. It must not retain the corrupt status-quo process for redistricting.

Line-drawing power plays would also be less likely with smaller districts in which neighborhoods had more direct representation and greater ability to elect their own council members. The power of "faction," whether it is racial, ethnic, geographic or otherwise political, would be returned to its proper place if there were a larger body of officials, each with scaled-back power and a more direct focus on the needs of voters.

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