After racist L.A. audio leak, a push for independent redistricting

In response to the city’s audio leak scandal a proposed state law could force Los Angeles to establish an independent county redistribution commission, thereby limiting the city council’s influence over county boundaries.

State Senator María Elena Durazo, who introduced the bill Monday along with a coalition of Los Angeles-area lawmakers, cited the arson involving three council members The Times reported in October, saying public confidence in the process of redistributing the city had eroded.

“The system just isn’t working the way it should,” she said. “City council members should not control the process of how the boundaries are written.”

The leak – which revealed that city council members and a prominent union leader jockeyed for boroughs favorable to themselves and their allies during an October 2021 call peppered with racist and derogatory comments – turned local politics on its head and turned them all – 10-year redistribution process.

Even if the proposed law is passed, it is not clear whether the state will have the power to dictate city-level reforms.

Under the current system, set out in the city charter, elected city officials appoint members to the borough redistribution board who can essentially act as their deputies. The council has the final say on the approval of the maps.

An independent commission would remove this power from the council, with borough maps accepted by the board and submitted to a city elections officer.

But changes to the charter — the civil constitution that governs Los Angeles — require a public vote. Experts say it’s likely this could still be required even if the proposed state law is successful.

Electoral boundaries are redrawn every decade after the census in counties across the US, although Los Angeles’ controversial new election system is relatively new.

For much of the past century, council members have been directly responsible for drawing lots for the districts themselves. A sweeping change came in 1999 when Angelenos voted on a new version of the city’s 74-year-old government document. The revised charter contained a compromise of sorts to redistribute the districts, creating the current quasi-independent system of appointed commissioners.

UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, who chaired the city’s charter reform commission in 1999, said he thought the new proposal was a great idea, noting that his commission originally proposed an independent redistribution panel , before the current structure was created.

However, Chemerinsky had serious doubts as to whether the change could be made unilaterally by state law.

“In my opinion, a bylaw change would be needed,” Chemerinsky said via email.

State legislatures successfully forced Los Angeles County to enact an independent redistribution of counties, with a commission setting oversight boundaries for the first time in 2021. This commission was created by a state law passed in 2016. The district then sued, claiming that a law targeting only one district violated the state constitution, but lost on appeal in 2020.

But city and county governments have different relationships with state law, meaning the county ruling doesn’t necessarily set a precedent for a future scenario involving the city.

“City charters have a stronger impact than county charters in discussions with the state,” said Raphael Sonenshein, an expert on local governance, adding that conflicts between state law and city charters become “interesting” and often end up in court.

The California Constitution mandates that charter cities like Los Angeles have power over their “community affairs,” so the question for a hypothetical future litigation would revolve around whether the redistribution of community boundaries is a municipal matter or a matter of state interest.

Both Sonenshein and Chemerinsky said that local elections are traditionally viewed as local affairs.

“I see the argument on the other side – a state interest in independent district commissions. But as I read this, it’s about the Los Angeles district,” Chemerinsky said via email. “It does appear to be a ‘community matter’.”

Redistributive reform has gained momentum in recent years, with Californians voting in 2008 to strip the Legislature of the power to draw its own districts and conduct independent state-level redistribution.

“At the national level, we’ve seen a number of states adopt independent models of new county commissions,” said Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, who served on the state’s new county commission.

Sadhwani said advocacy groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters “have played a really important role in advancing the concept of independent commissions” from the perspective of transparency and good governance.

Paul Mitchell, an expert who has conducted over 100 municipal reallocations, said he thinks the text of the proposed state measure looked strong, noting that it resembled the language used for independent Los Angeles County and city redeployment commissions Long Beach is used.

The leak at City Hall boosted reform efforts locally, but a separate attempt to redesign the system began working its way through the LA City Council long before the tape was released.

In December 2021, Council members Nithya Raman and Paul Krekorian submitted a motion to initiate the process to establish an independent City Redistribution Commission.

When the proposal went to the full Council for a vote nearly a year later in late October, Raman harshly criticized the time he had spent on a committee.

“That moment for change was there long before those tapes were leaked,” Raman said.

Durazo, the Los Angeles Democrat who introduced the law, said the city council has had “years to deal with it if it wanted to,” adding that she has no intention of leaving the matter “in the hands of the City Council members” to let.

Sharon Tso, Chief Legislative Analyst, said via email that her office does not have a definitive answer as to whether the legislation would require an amendment to the charter “because it is ultimately subject to legal interpretation if the bill goes through.” Tso also noted that the bill “would be at odds with reform proposals” currently under consideration at the city level.

“Regardless of state bills, a change in the bylaws would still be important because laws can be repealed as early as the next legislature,” Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said in an email. “By contrast, a charter change requires voters to overturn it.”

Hannah Wiley, a Times contributor, contributed to this report. After racist L.A. audio leak, a push for independent redistricting

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