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In The Wake Of LA’s Secret Recording Scandal, Local Scholars Band Together On Redistricting Reform

A man wearing a white hoodie, holds a brown poster that reads "KDL is Anti-Poor, KDL is Anti-Black, KDL is Anti-Native, VETO 41.18. He's holding his hand to his mouth as he shouts. Next two him a white woman holds up an out of focus white sign. On the right of the frame other diverse members of the public are standing, some holding signs up.
Members of the public hold signs protesting Kevin De León at the first L.A. City Council meeting with newly elected members on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.
(Brian Feinzimer
for LAist)
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The political scandal that forced the resignations of the Los Angeles City Council president and a powerful labor leader has spurred several prominent local scholars to band together to figure out ways to reform city government, starting with the redistricting process.

Calling itself the L.A. Governance Reform Project, the group of six scholars has issued a statement saying it hopes in the coming months to present policymakers with recommendations for an independent redistricting process.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck moment in Los Angeles,” said Gary Segura, dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-chair of the Reform Project. “Interest in reform is high throughout the community.”

The group says it will seek input from the academic, governmental, civic, and activist communities. It also plans to set up a process for the general public to provide input, said Reform Project member Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

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The group intends to address other issues after redistricting, “including but not limited to council expansion, ethics, and land use reform,” according to its statement.

The secret recording and redistricting

The scandal grew out of the release of a secret recording of Council President Nury Martinez, Councilmember Kevin de León, Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and Ron Herrera, the head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. Martinez and De León are heard making openly racist remarks and derogatory comments about colleagues. Cedillo and Herrera appear to go along.

The recording was made during a meeting in the fall of 2021 as the city was preparing to redraw the boundaries of each council district — a once-in-a-decade process that affects who is elected and what assets council districts will have available. The four were talking about how to carve up districts and maintain their own power, with a focus on Latino districts, and how to hold the power of renters at bay.

After the recording surfaced last fall, Martinez and Herrera quickly resigned. Cedillo left office because he had lost his reelection bid. De León has refused to step down.

“While this period has been truly alarming, it has also exposed the longstanding need for meaningful governance reform in the City of L.A.,” said Reform Project co-chair Ange-Marie Hancock, a USC professor of gender studies and political science. “This moment represents an historic opportunity for meaningful initiatives.”

Right now, the city council appoints a redistricting panel, but under the city charter has ultimate authority over how to redraw district boundaries. An independent commission would take that authority away from the council. To do so would require a citywide vote to change the charter.

Other redistricting reform efforts

Some lawmakers in Sacramento are also focused on L.A.’s redistricting process.

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Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) has introduced a bill that would require the city to allow an independent commission to redraw district boundaries. Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Culver City) has introduced a bill that would require cities with 300,000 or more people to create independent panels.

It is unclear that a citywide vote would still be necessary if the state passes those proposals.

In 2008, California created an independent redistricting panel to draw state legislative and congressional boundaries. In 2016, Gov. Brown signed into law a measure that requires L.A. County to have such a commission independent from the Board of Supervisors.

Common Cause is among the groups lobbying for the change at L.A. City Hall. “The unfolding scandal shines a light on what a redistricting process looks like under the control of incumbents and exemplifies why the drawing of district lines should not be left to political appointees or elected bodies,” it said in a statement shortly after the recordings came to light.

The other three members of the L.A. Governance Reform Project are: Fernando Guerra, head of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University (Guerra is also an Honorary Life Trustee of the board of our parent company, Southern California Public Radio); Boris Ricks, director of the Center for Southern California Studies at Cal State Northridge, and Sara Sadhwani, assistant politics professor at Pomona College and a former member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

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