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L.A. panel backs City Council redistricting reform

The push to reform Los Angeles City Hall took a leap forward Thursday, with a council committee endorsing a detailed plan to establish an independent redistricting commission but also delaying a decision on increasing the council’s size.

The council’s current redistricting process, which gives council members final say over their own district boundaries, has been widely decried by stakeholders across the political spectrum. Last month, state lawmakers approved overlapping bills that would force the city to adopt independent redistricting if it fails to do so on its own first.

Thursday’s committee vote was both momentous and incremental.

It marked the first concrete proposal from the council’s high-profile government reform committee, which convened in the wake of last year’s City Hall audio leak scandal to advance reforms and restore faith in the scandal-plagued institution.

The committee has spent months meeting around the city and exhaustively deliberating the minutiae of various reform efforts. The panel was undoubtedly facing pressure to have something to show for its work before Monday, the one-year anniversary of the audio scandal.

The proposal still needs the sign-off of the full council, which must decide whether to place it on the November 2024 ballot for voter approval.

Meanwhile, for the second meeting in a row, the reform committee deferred a decision on a second and more contentious proposal to expand the size of the 15-member City Council. Increasing the council’s size would also be subject to a public vote, since it would require changes to the City Charter, as would be the case for independent redistricting.

The idea of council expansion was proposed last year, days after the leak of a 2021 recording of a conversation about redistricting that featured racist and derogatory remarks about Black people, Oaxacan residents and others.

During the recorded conversation, three council members and a union leader — Ron Herrera, then-head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor — discussed ways of drawing district maps that would benefit either themselves or their political allies. They spoke about chopping up Councilmember Nithya Raman’s district, with one council member — Kevin De León — saying it should be put in a “blender.”

Herrera and then-Council President Nury Martinez resigned in the wake of the scandal. By then, Councilmember Gil Cedillo had already lost his bid for another term. De León is running for re-election in March.

Furor over the leaked tape brought new energy to City Hall reform efforts, fueling fresh calls for an independent redistricting system that would limit the City Council’s influence over the drawing of district boundary lines, turning those duties over to a citizen commission that is unencumbered by ties to special interests or other politicians.

The council is expected to spend several weeks taking public comment on the proposal before asking City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto to draft ballot language for November 2024. Under the committee’s proposal, L.A. would establish an independent commission with 16 voting members and four alternates.

It’s unclear whether the reform committee will finish its deliberations on council expansion before the council casts a vote on its independent redistricting ballot measure.

Council President Paul Krekorian, who heads the reform committee, has proposed increasing the council’s size to 23 members. Councilmember Heather Hutt publicly supports 25, while Raman said she would be open to as many as 31.

Near the end of Thursday’s meeting, Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez told her colleagues that she wants an analysis that spells out how council expansion would affect the body’s “legislative power” — and how each city agency would be affected if there are 30 council members instead of 15.

“There’s a lot of data and information missing for me to feel like I’m making the appropriate decision,” said Hernandez, who represents part of the Eastside.

Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who also serves on the reform committee, missed Thursday’s meeting but has called for the panel to postpone a decision on the council’s size.

Blumenfield, who will be termed out in 2026, said the specifics of expansion should be taken up by a new citizens commission charged with updating the City Charter, the city’s governing document. He declined to say how many members the council should have, arguing that expansion should be “more modest than radical.”

The council has not seen an increase in its size in nearly a century, with the last expansion — from nine members to 15 — taking effect in 1925. The last time Angelenos took up the idea of expansion was in 1999, when voters rejected proposals to move the council to 21 or 25 members.

Raman, a supporter of council expansion, said she has been hearing “a lot of skepticism” from her colleagues about the issue. However, she said she also remains eager to continue the discussion.

Krekorian, who heads the reform committee, said he remains committed to the effort to add more council members.

“I think it’s important policy objective to reduce the size of our council districts,” he said. “But there’s more work to be done with that. We just finished one part of it today.”

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