Dan Walters

Two county redistricting reform bills move in opposite directions

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, speaks at a rally where health care and immigrant rights advocates celebrated the expansion of Medi-Cal to children and teens illegally brought to the United States, held at the Capitol on May 16, 2016.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, speaks at a rally where health care and immigrant rights advocates celebrated the expansion of Medi-Cal to children and teens illegally brought to the United States, held at the Capitol on May 16, 2016. AP

Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1108 on Sept. 28, allowing counties and cities without charters to appoint independent commissions to adjust the boundaries of governing board districts after every federal census.

Sen. Ben Allen’s measure is a step toward more open and responsive government, patterned after the creation, via ballot measure, of a state commission to write redistricting plans for the Legislature, the congressional delegation and the Board of Equalization.

It also builds on a 2012 law that established an independent redistricting commission to redraw San Diego County’s supervisorial districts after each census and on decisions in a number of charter cities to create such commissions.

The composition of the state commission, which adopted its first sets of maps in 2011, is carefully balanced in both partisan and ethnic terms, thus requiring a great deal of consensus and avoiding domination by one political or sociological faction.

Under the Allen bill, local redistricting commissions would not have the same strict requirements for balance, but it would prohibit them from being entirely dominated by members of one political party.

Having signed SB 1108, Brown should have stopped right there. But he simultaneously approved another bill, SB 958, which applies only to Los Angeles County and which goes in the opposite – and dangerous – direction.

SB 958, carried by Sen. Richard Lara, creates a 14-member commission to redraw the county’s five supervisorial districts and requires its membership to reflect the partisan makeup of the county’s voters.

Given Los Angeles County’s Democratic dominance, it ensures that the party’s adherents will control redistricting and eliminate any chance for anyone other than a Democratic politician to become a Los Angeles County supervisor, one of the state’s most powerful and desirable positions.

Lara calls it good government, but it’s not. It’s a recipe for officially bringing party politics into what officially has been, for many decades, nonpartisan local government.

Parties have, of course, been informally involved in city and county politics for many years, particularly in the state’s more populous regions such as Los Angeles. But by insulating local officials from partisan designations – as they have in many other states, especially those in the East – California has made local elections more about candidates and local issues, and less about party tickets and party loyalty.

Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the Los Angeles board now, but significantly, the board itself opposed the Lara bill, as did the California State Association of Counties.

Oddly, it drew support from the League of Women Voters, thus tarnishing its reputation for fostering political reform.

A better approach to improving the governance of populous urban counties would be expanding their boards from five members to seven, nine or even 11 members, thus increasing representation from their many diverse communities.

However, legislation to expand the boards of big counties was killed, while Lara’s misbegotten bill is now law.

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