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State Launches Investigation Into LA Redistricting As Leaked Tape Fallout Continues. Why Big Changes Could Be Ahead

Los Angeles City Hall, a tall white building flanked by two smaller wings, is shown in daylight from across the street .
City Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
(Chava Sanchez
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California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Wednesday that he is launching "an independent investigation into the City of Los Angeles and its city council with regard to the city's redistricting process."

Just hours after that investigation was announced, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer called for a special election next spring to get voter approval for the City Council district lines to be redrawn.

In addition, during Tuesday's raucous City Council meeting, acting City Council President Mitch O'Farrell introduced a motion that opens the door for a ballot measure in 2024 that would amend the city charter in a transformative way. The measure he wants to put before voters would increase the number of city council seats — currently 15 — based on population growth. L.A. is currently, by far, the smallest city councils of the nation's three biggest cities (more on that later).

And it all could have major ramifications for the power structure in the second-largest U.S. city.

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Redistricting And Power In LA

At the center of the leaked tape that ignited one of the most rancorous weeks ever in city politics was a question of political power: who has it and who doesn't.

The taped meeting included (now former) L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez, L.A. councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, and (now former) L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. Martinez stepped down from her position as Council president earlier in the week, before stepping down from the Council entirely on Wednesday.

By now you've probably heard that Martinez used racist language about fellow Councilmember Mike Bonin's young son, who is Black, along with other anti-Black sentiments and racist and derogatory comments aimed at L.A.'s Indigenous Oaxacan community, Jewish residents, and Armenians. Her comments went unchecked by her peers in the recording.

Listen: Excerpts From The City Hall Tapes

While, rightfully, much of the focus has been on those comments, it's important to keep in mind that the broader conversation was about last year's redistricting efforts.

The three Latino councilmembers were talking about how to maintain or increase their power and limit the power of other councilmembers, particularly in Black communities. The political leaders also mention District 4 City Councilmember Nithya Raman, who Cedillo referred to as “not our ally." They discuss redrawing her district boundaries to ensure she won't have a district with a strong renter population.

Councilmember Raman, speaking Monday on our newsroom's public affairs show, AirTalk, also called for reforms to the city’s redistricting process, saying “it’s basically designed to create exactly the kind of backroom dealings” heard in the leaked recordings.

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Why Redistricting Matters

Now, other elected leaders are saying the tape is raising questions about how those new district lines were drawn. Redistricting takes place every 10 years, following the U.S. Census and can determine who does, and does not, get elected to a wide range of offices, from very local to Washington, D.C.

"The decennial redistricting process is foundational for our democracy and for the ability of our communities to make their voices heard — and it must be above reproach," Bonta said, when he announced the state investigation. "The leaked audio has cast doubt on a cornerstone of our political processes for Los Angeles."

Feuer also stressed the "need to restore faith in the redistricting process."

"I'm calling on the City Council, immediately, to vote to put a special election in the spring of 2023 before our voters," he said Wednesday afternoon. "In that election, it should place a charter amendment on the ballot. That charter amendment should be to redraw the lines for 2024 election. Those lines must be drawn independently of elected officials."

The council also had a motion slated for a vote Wednesday that would have started the process of creating an independent redistricting committee, but the meeting was adjourned after members of the public drowned out the proceedings with boos and chants, calling for an end to council meetings until Martinez, Cedillo and de León resign their seats.

How L.A. Compares To Chicago and NY

If you're wondering how political representation in the second largest U.S. city compares to other big cities, here's a little math:

  • The city of Los Angeles has 15 council districts in a city with about 3.85 million people, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates. That works out to an average of one council representative for about every 256,000 residents.
  • New York City has 51 council districts and roughly 8.5 million people. That’s about one council representative per 167,000 residents.
  • The city of Chicago has 50 districts, called wards, to represent about 2.7 million residents. That's about one council representative for every 54,000 people.
What questions do you have about Southern California?

Updated October 12, 2022 at 5:17 PM PDT
This story updated with news of Nury Martinez resigning office and the city attorney's call for a special election.