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Expand The LA City Council? Leaked Tape Could Change Nearly 100 Years Of Concentrated Power

In the foreground, a group of people with medium skin tones hold protest signs calling for Nury Martinez, Gill Cedillo and Kevin de León to resign. In the background is a building that says City Hall.
Protestors demonstrate outside City Hall calling for the resignations of City Council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo in the wake of the scandal over racist remarks on leaked recordings.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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Among the many racist and discriminatory things discussed in the recent leaked tapes, the three City Council members in the meeting talked about using redistricting to carve up the city with their own interests at heart.

One of the reasons that was possible is that there are only 15 council members representing a city of 4 million, with each member representing about 260,000 residents. (And there are concerns about that concentrated power after the recording showed how racism influenced district maps.)

For context, New York City, which has 8 million residents, has 51 council members — each representing about 167,000 residents.

Meanwhile, L.A.’s City Council’s size has been locked at 15 members for nearly the last 100 years.

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It’s unusual for so few members to speak for so many constituents, and not everyone agrees it’s good for democracy.

Acting Council President Mitch O’Farrell introduced a motion on Tuesday to place a ballot measure before voters in 2024 to expand the council based on population growth.

Let’s look at how we got here.

How LA’s City Council Stacks Up

To understand how power works in city councils, we need to look at the numbers.

The strength of a City Council —as in, how easily it can achieve consensus to get things done — is determined by the number of members versus their district population.

When the influence of many gets condensed into the hands of a few, that equals power. In L.A.’s case, many consider our council the strongest in the nation.

“The smaller the council, the more significant each council member is,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A. “And that’s good and bad.”

It can be positive to elect someone with influence in City Hall, Sonenshein said, but if they make decisions that aren’t in the interests of constituents, it’s a Catch-22. They’d still have a lot of sway in city dealings.

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The smaller the council, the more significant each council member is.
— Raphael Sonenshein, Cal State L.A.

New York City is still considered a small and strong council because each seat represents about 167,000 residents. For comparison, Buffalo has one of the least “powerful” councils with one seat per 31,000 constituents.

Small councils can really dictate a city’s future. There are fewer members to lobby for votes, and quorum requirements are usually tight. If enough members are out sick, fail to show up or leave at the right times, then meetings could be brought to a standstill.

In L.A., only two-thirds of members are required to be present to reach quorum, according to council rules. That’s only 10 elected officials. That tightrope of numbers likely led the council to lose quorum in a heated session on Oct. 12 after the recording scandal.

How Did LA Arrive At 15?

The size of the council changed pretty frequently, Sonenshein said. When L.A. was incorporated as a U.S. city in 1850, there were seven council members. Then in 1878, because of a state law, it went to 15. When 1889 came around, it dropped to nine.

While a new charter was approved by voters in 1924, there were two competing measures about council size. One was with the overall charter, which allowed for 11 council members to be elected by voters citywide. The other was a standalone measure where only voters in a given district could elect their member, with a total of 15 council seats.

“The charter got a very large majority, and that would have included the 11 council members elected [citywide],” Sonenshein said. “But when voters were asked just to make a decision on the size of the council, that also passed — although not by quite as large a majority.”

The measures went all the way to the California Supreme Court — where the body let the standalone measure prevail, giving us the 15 council member number. At the time, there were about 38,000 residents per district.

That was in 1925. Since then, representation has stayed stagnant while the city expanded from half a million to just under 4 million.

Has Anyone Ever Tried to Expand The Council Before?

Yes, one of the largest efforts happened during the development of the 1999 City Charter.

“There was a tremendous amount of interest, just like today, given that the city had become much larger than it was in 1925, that there should be a larger city council,” said Sonenshein, who served as executive director of the appointed Charter Reform Commission during those years.

It turned out to be a massively unpopular idea.
— Raphael Sonenshein, Cal State L.A.

The commission agreed that the council should expand, but not by how much. It was taken to the voters to decide between two measures that would raise seats to 21 or 25.

“It turned out to be a massively unpopular idea,” Sonenshein said. Voters rejected both expansion measures, electing to stick with the 15-member size. Some thought it wasn’t worth paying more officials, while others worried it would dilute representation for Black and Latino communities.

Could An Expansion Really Happen?

While it wasn’t successful before, Los Angeles has changed a lot since 1999. There’s more interest in spreading power to ensure residents are seen and heard. Some argue a larger council will give members more time to know the specific communities they’d serve. (Mike Feuer, as a mayoral candidate, argued for doubling the number of council members and slashing their pay).

Movements have also grown in recent years. Communities of color want to get independent seats at the table. When district maps were redrawn in 2021, the Watts neighborhood council was unhappy it was placed in District 15, saying that it was “unnaturally linked” to an area where it had little in common with other neighborhoods.

Similarly, Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown, among other neighborhoods, were concerned about what being lumped together with affluent areas would do to representation.

Sonenshein thinks today’s L.A. is "a very different electorate, a more diverse electorate. More renters, younger voters,” he said.

“It might be people who think that greater opportunities for representation would be worth the downside of having more politicians at City Hall.”

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