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Garcetti, Wesson improperly used race in redistricting, lawyer says

Eric Garcetti and Herb Wesson created new City Council district boundaries to benefit 'certain politicians,' lawyer alleges, saying federal voting rights law was violated.

July 10, 2013|By David Zahniser
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti listens to constituents talk about issues of concern in the community on his first day in office at City Hall.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti listens to constituents talk about issues… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

The lawyer for a group of Los Angeles residents suing to redraw year-old boundaries for 15 City Council districts on Wednesday accused two top elected officials — including newly installed Mayor Eric Garcetti — of violating federal voting rights law when the maps were developed.

Attorney Leo Terrell sent a letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder alleging that Council President Herb Wesson and then-Councilman Garcetti created the maps in a way that benefited "certain politicians" while disenfranchising the public.

Terrell said a memo written by Bernard Parks Jr., chief of staff to and son of Councilman Bernard C. Parks, showed that race was improperly used in the redistricting process. In the memo, which had no letterhead and no date, Parks Jr. said a Wesson deputy had told him that one proposed map — which was ultimately not pursued — would put "too many Mexicans" into Wesson's district.

Councilmen Parks and Wesson, who represent sections of South Los Angeles, were at odds during the redistricting process. In the memo, Parks Jr. also said that Garcetti told him that Wesson was looking to increase the number of African American voters in his district.

"You cannot use race as a factor in drawing lines," said Terrell, standing outside City Hall on Wednesday. Terrell said he wants a judge to redo the maps to make sure "the lines are drawn without any contemplation of race being used as a factor."

Wesson and Garcetti declined to comment on Terrell's assertions. But Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, who has a website devoted to the redistricting process, said federal law allows for race to be part of the deliberations when new political maps are made. In a courtroom, the question would come down to whether race was discussed too much, Levitt said.

During redistricting "you can consider community interests, economic interests, certain industrial patterns, or even sports fandom," Levitt said. "You can consider lots of different things and also race, as long as race is one element thrown into the mix. You only get in trouble when race is the predominant factor."

Parks and Wesson are both black. The disagreement between the two politicians during last year's redistricting debate focused on who would represent certain neighborhoods, many of them south of the 10 Freeway. Parks was unhappy with the final map, which removed USC and the neighborhoods of Baldwin Vista, Village Green and part of Leimert Park from his district.

The "too many Mexicans" memo was posted on Parks' official city website earlier this year. The Los Angeles Times reported last August that Wesson told a group of black ministers that he had managed during the redistricting process to "make sure that a minimum of two of the council people will be black for the next 30 years." Redistricting only covers a 10-year period.

Terrell has argued that those statements, recorded on video and posted online last year, are another sign that race was wrongfully used during the map-making process. In his letter, Terrell asked Holder to intervene in his case, one of two filed in response to the redistricting ordinance.

Koreatown activists have also sued to block implementation of the maps, which were used as part of this year's council elections.

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