In 2012, Los Angeles’s redistricting process was an unmitigated disaster. In 2021, Nury Martinez will not hold the meetings required to pass key resolutions.
The Rules, Elections, & Intergovernmental Relations Committee plays a quiet but pivotal behind-the-scenes role in Los Angeles. Responsible for advancing and submitting often important legislation, in the past few years the committee has been involved in pushing for a shutdown of the Playa Del Rey gas facility and recommending de-escalation training techniques for local law enforcement agencies. With redistricting now underway in light of recent Census data, the role of the Rules, Elections, & Intergovernmental Relations Committee is vital.
LA City Council President Nury Martinez has served as the chair of the committee since early 2020. So far, 15 out of the 17 meetings under Martinez’s tenure have been canceled. To Martinez’s credit, she took over just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, so some of the earlier cancellations are not beyond understanding. However, with redistricting now underway, Martinez’s continued inaction is a cause of increasing concern.
This April, an item on the Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations meeting agenda was the discussion of a resolution demanding actionable steps to outlaw ex parte communications. Martinez canceled the meeting and the subsequent meetings in May and June. The fact such an important resolution was pushed to the wayside has sparked major concern about the future of fair elections in Los Angeles.
LA Redistricting: A Brief History
LA’s last redistricting was in 2012 and a source of fierce controversy. The Los Angeles Times went as far as to call it “a sham” in a 2020 op-ed put out by the editorial board.
A 21-member commission appointed by elected officials redrew LA’s council districts. While they held frequent public meetings to appear impartial, the process was marred with controversy and alleged backdoor dealings. The blowback lasted years.
One lawsuit claimed the City Council used race as a basis for redrawing districts due to reported comments by a staffer for then–City Council President Herb Wesson, who allegedly said one of Wesson’s proposed districts included “too many Mexicans.” Wesson’s district was redrawn in a fashion so controversial that then–City Councilmembers Jan Perry and Bernard C. Parks dubbed it a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
By far the most notable controversy was that of Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district was redrawn to include an affluent part of downtown Los Angeles. Huizar went on to exploit this power, taking roughly $1.5 million in bribes from companies looking to build in the area. This eventually resulted in the FBI opening up a case against LA City Hall. In June of 2020, Huizar was officially charged in the corruption probe. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Essentially, redistricting boiled down to a combination of gerrymandering and drawing lines that granted affluent property owners disproportionate control over the city. This left many Angelenos fearing that — without adequate reform — Los Angeles would repeat the same mistakes in 2021.
A Call for Reform
Going into 2021, Nury Martinez has enacted some small reforms, including requiring commissioners on the redistricting council to undergo ethics training. However, her efforts fall sorely short of addressing the process’s underlying vulnerabilities.
In September 2020, a group of progressive organizations — including ACLU SoCal, Ground Game LA., Unrig LA, and the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles — signed an open letter to City Council that called for a series of reforms to the redistricting process. You can read the letter in full here, but suggestions included creating screening processes for independent staffers, allowing public comment on draft maps, and banning ex parte communications.
This last demand gained some traction. In early 2021, three members of the City Council Redistricting Commission drafted a resolution with actionable steps to prohibit ex parte communications during the redistricting process. If passed, this would be a huge step forward in ensuring a more transparent, impartial process.
Ex parte is a Latin phrase meaning “on one side only.” In politics and law, “ex parte communications” is an umbrella term referring to communication made off the public record and without proper notice to all parties involved. Ex parte communications during 2012 redistricting sparked accusations of backdoors deals that led to districts being unfairly drawn to benefit certain elected officials over others.
During the April 13 meeting of the City Council Redistricting Commission, Chair Fred Ali announced the Rules, Elections, & Intergovernmental Relations Committee would be considering this resolution.
However, that meeting was subsequently canceled, as were the following meetings in May and June.
Martinez Gets Defensive
On July 1, 2021, City Council held an emergency meeting to vote on a controversial measure that set restrictions on how far encampments can be from specific public facilities. Critics saw this as one in another series of attempts to criminalize unhoused residents, and the measure — which passed 13 to 2 — received considerable public comment.
Toward the end of the meeting, Monica Rodriguez spoke on both City Council’s lack of transparency with the public and their tendency to delay important decisions and conversations. In response, Martinez became noticeably agitated.
She noted conversations are “difficult” and “often take longer than six months.” She then seemed to address some of the criticisms she’s received recently — especially from progressive organizations on Twitter — for canceling meetings and delaying votes.
“If you want to come for me, you can do that,” Martinez stated. “Do it all day long on Twitter. I’m a working mom who happens to be sitting in this chair and I work 24/7 and I have been for the last 16 months. So, if you want to come after me for taking a recess or a so-called vacation, you can go ahead and do that as well.”
This comment is troubling considering the Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee is fast-approaching. Given Martinez’s defensiveness over her tendency to indefinitely delay important conversations, it seems unlikely she’ll prioritize redistricting reform.
The Future of Redistricting: Repeating Past Mistakes?
As of right now, redistricting must be completed by December 2021. While that sounds like an ample amount of time, the slow-moving nature of bureaucracy is a cause for concern. Resolutions often take months to pass, and given redistricting is already happening we need reforms sooner rather than later.
Why is Nury Martinez canceling Rules, Elections, and Intergovernmental Relations Committee meetings? The early cancellations likely did have to do with City Council being overwhelmed over COVID-19, but we are well over a year into the pandemic and other pressing matters have arisen. Given the urgency of redistricting reform, the ability to give Martinez the benefit of the doubt is wavering — especially considering her lack of transparency has been an ongoing issue during her tenure at City Council. (My first piece at Knock, in fact, was on Martinez’s clandestine efforts to fast-track a controversial ordinance through the system.)
In place of regular meetings, Martinez has instead held five special meetings. Special meetings do not always release an agenda early and do not allow public comment. Redistricting is a high-stakes issue and the clock is ticking. Transparency and community feedback are pertinent, both of which Martinez — and City Council as a whole — seem to be actively avoiding.