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Joe Mathews: Give parents and politicians a break on residency rules

Admit it: You’re not exactly sure where you live, are you?

Don’t be embarrassed to acknowledge that, beyond knowing your street address, you’re a little uncertain. California has so many thousands of overlapping local government jurisdictions that understanding where you are at any given moment, even where you sleep each night, can be tricky. Many communities have changed and developed so rapidly that agreeing on a name, or fixed boundaries, is hard. And until recently, most people in migration-friendly California were born and raised elsewhere. Confusion about place is to be forgiven.

The trouble is that we Californians aren’t so forgiving about residence when it comes to two kinds of people: politicians and parents of school-age children.

Already this year, prosecutors have won voter fraud and perjury convictions against two politicians – state Sen. Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills and former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcón – who were found to be living a short distance outside the boundaries of their districts.

And as the new school year gets under way, California school districts are badgering families to verify their residence. My oldest son is starting kindergarten this month in a San Gabriel Valley district that has required two different appointments for residency verification on top of two online verifications. I stopped counting after the seventh form I signed attesting – under penalty of perjury – that I actually live where I live.

Such zeal in making sure we live within district lines, and not one block over, is somewhat peculiar, since Californians’ taxes that pay for schools get funneled through Sacramento. It also seems hypocritical, when you remember that political donors and interest groups don’t have to live in the places where they exert their influence. Unlike some other places, we don’t require our teachers or city managers or cops – or prosecutors, for that matter – to live in the jurisdiction where they work.

Residency rules are especially strange in Los Angeles, which is defined by the fact that no one can tell where one community ends and another begins. Covering elections in Southern California, I would find myself listening to a voter explain her reasons for supporting a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles only to learn that she lived in Santa Monica or Culver City, which are separate municipalities. While covering Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Los Angeles Times, I waged a years-long battle with the newspaper copy desk over whether the governor’s house was in Brentwood (my view) or Pacific Palisades (the desk’s).

Given this broader context, I think Gov. Jerry Brown should step in and pardon Alarcón and Wright. To watch the news coverage, you might think they had moved far afield from their communities. But last week, I drove between the address each man used for political purposes and the home where each was actually living. Alarcon’s two addresses were in adjoining neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. Wright’s home was a six-minute drive up a hill from the apartment where he was registered to vote.

Of course, some stuffy legalists will maintain the hoary principle that you can’t represent a community unless you live there. But that’s simply not true in other California contexts.

The best example might be high school sports, which traditionally has been about children from one town competing against the children of another town. But in California, as the L.A. Times’ indispensable high school sports columnist Eric Sondheimer recently reported, about 15,000 high school athletes transfer each year to other schools, often many miles from their homes. CIF, the athletic governing body, tried to limit transfers, but gave up, in part because of the legal costs involved with fighting parents who challenged the restrictions.

While Californians embrace these ringer athletes, they rail against their politicians, who are far more local than their high school point guards. So why not take a page from youth sports and allow politicians to transfer out of their districts to other districts that will take them, without having to change residence?

Such a change would broaden the talent pool for communities seeking elected representatives. And taxpayers would save money on unnecessary prosecutions of politicians over where they live.

We are a state of ringers. And we shouldn’t run from that fact. Especially since we couldn’t be sure where we were running to anyway.