LOS ANGELES--Few people on the streets of Los Angeles are aware of a local process underway that could determine whether or not they have a voice at Los Angeles City Hall.
Commissioners Investing in Civic Engagement
LOS ANGELES—New America Media spoke with members of the Los Angeles City Council Redistricting Committee about why they are volunteering their time in raising awareness about the redistricting process. Since December 5, the commission's 21 members have been holding separate public meetings in each of the city’s 15 districts and will hold their final meeting Tuesday, January 10. Commissioners will also tour the entire city of Los Angeles to experience each district, produce extensive draft maps, and hold 6 more public hearings before drawing a final map by March 1.
Antonio Vargas, Executive Director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) , Chair of Los Angeles Redistricting Commission
I want a city that works. I want a city where people who live here believe that they have a full voice in the future of their neighborhoods.
Helen Kim, Assistant Vice President of the Los Angeles County Bar Association
I have been very involved in the Korean community in particular for over 15 years and I believe some of the frustrations that I’ve seen particularly after the 1992 riots and rebuilding of Korea Town, people have come finally around to realizing it is in part because of a lack of accountability and representation on the city council.
Robert Ahn, Attorney specializing in Real Estate Law
I can’t think of a more important issue at the community level than this redistricting process. This is a once in a decade process. The result of this redistricting is going to determine who represents your various communities and the surrounding communities as well.
David Roberts, Associate Director, University of Southern California’s Local Government Relations Office
I think part of it is engagement and that government can be good. There is a lot of cynicism out there… you can see it with the Occupy Movement. Folks think that deals are done to benefit a small few, and hopefully through our engagement process, we’re going to be very transparent, very public. My anticipation is that the public input we get at these hearings is actually what we use to build these maps and hopefully we encourage and our work translates to public confidence in the process.
“We are talking about empowerment and political representation,” said Redistricting Commissioner Helen B. Kim, a respected attorney, who is also the commission’s controller.
In Los Angeles, for example, the 2010 Census reveals that about half of the 15 districts have a Hispanic majority. Yet only four City Council members are of Latino heritage.
What’s more, with the current district mapping not one City Council member is from the Asian or Pacific Islander community, even though the 2010 Census shows that API residents make up 15 percent of the city’s population.
Not only must the newly drawn districts include about a quarter-million Los Angeles residents, to fit the interests of the city’s 3,792,671 residents, according to the 2010 Census, the final district maps will determine how well the City of Los Angeles serves key aspects of the quality of life in each section.
City Council representation determines such essential aspects affecting daily living as economic development, public safety, schools, transportation, senior services, small businesses, real estate property values—and attention to each area’s racial or ethnic makeup, such as by providing information in appropriate languages.
Kim, a leader of LA’s Korean American community, explained, “One of the most affected areas during the 1992 riots was Korea town and the area was being represented by four different council members.”
She continued, “ How can you assign responsibility when you have four people pointing fingers at each other? When a community is divided, like Koreatown is into four districts, they feel that their vote is being diluted.”
Local Issues, Not Race Issues
Although commissioners made it clear that race cannot be a factor in how they eventually draw the maps, Kim said communities, such as Little Tokyo, Chinatown and Koreatown, need to get involved in this process “to consolidate themselves as a political force with the capacity to elect a representative that will represent their interest in local issues, not race issues.” Koreatown, for example, currently lacks parks, affecting the quality of life for those who live and work there.
She emphasized that although the commissioners are well aware, for instance, that not only Chinese residents live in Chinatown or Japanese people in Little Tokyo, the public needs to respond to the commission’s outreach to ensure they're represented.
For example, Kim observed, “There is a growing Vietnamese population in Chinatown.”
The city established the independent, multicultural commission in 1999, to ensure citizens involvement in the political process, similar to the once-a-decade redistricting process used to determine state and federal election districts.
Commission Chair Arturo Vargas, emphasized, “We want to ensure that protected population groups such as Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans are not denied the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice by the way lines are drawn.”
He explained that the redistricting commission is completing its initial 15 district hearings this Tuesday and will then have preliminary maps drawn for public feedback at six additional hearings from Jan. 29 to Feb. 11. So far, he said, about 100 people have participated in each hearing.
The commission is staffing each meeting with interpreters and is providing written materials in Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Thai, and Armenian. People unable to attend the meetings can also call or write with their responses or send them via the Internet.
Understanding How Lines Affect Lives
The commission will present its final report and maps to the Los Angeles City Council by March 1. The city has until July 1 to adopt a final and permanent map for the next 10 years.
Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, added that the commission must comply with the United States Constitution by guaranteeing that each district is of equal population and complies with the federal Voting Rights Act.
Also, Vargas said, prior to remapping the districts, “The commission is going to get on three buses to tour the city and look at areas that are most under contention in terms of how the lines are draw. This is all so that the commission really understands how lines affect the lives of people,” he stressed.