At a packed public hearing Feb. 1 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, Koreatown residents expressed rage over a proposed Los Angeles City Council "redistricting" plan — an arcane, once-per-decade element of democracy that most people find about as thrilling as school bonds.
Yet something strange began to unfold as Lloyd Lee, a youngish attorney on the board of the Korean American Bar Association, stepped to the mic and announced, "I would like to welcome you to the political awakening of Koreatown. We are not going to be the quiet group anymore that just hands out money without representation!"
Lee decried the secret meetings of the L.A. City Redistricting Commission, which had just released a crude gerrymander of L.A. that punishes the enemies of City Council President Herb Wesson while ignoring natural borders and slicing through inconvenient geographic features — like the Santa Monica Mountains.
The large crowd at the Ebell whooped and thunderously applauded Lee. And as it turned out, they were just warming up.
Citywide, people are angry over the plan, and Koreatown is the epicenter.
The Frankenfish-like map redraws L.A.'s 15 council districts by snipping key communities apart, creating a "voting district" that crosses the Santa Monica Mountains to join Encino with Silver Lake, switching proudly independent Sunland-Tujunga into the district of indicted Councilman Richard Alarcon, snatching most of downtown from Councilwoman Jan Perry and melding Westchester with a South L.A. voting district by linking the two areas with a thin, flagpole-like corridor.
That last tortured gerrymander, of City Council District 8, has created a strange shape that looks from one angle like an army tank with a fluttering flag atop it. Council District 13 looks like an evil squirrel. Council District 1 looks like a poodle.
And Council District 10, represented by Wesson, whose hands are all over the commission's proposed "voting districts" maps?
District 10 looks very much like a turkey.
The next speaker in Koreatown was Jimmy Chai, 35, who asked, "Is this process a sham?" to a big burst of applause.
Chai publicly accused Wesson and his deputy, Michael Bae, of corruption, declaring: "We are being terrorized by our leadership. ... We have a deputy city councilman that's threatening business ownerships [to donate] fundraising dollars in exchange for conditional-use permits."
"We have a councilman who funnels money from the Wilshire Center-Koreatown district to developer friends and his personal agenda — with no gain to any of the communities."
Big applause — and shouts of approval.
"Koreatown needs cleaner streets, more parks ... but [Wesson] uses this as leverage for his personal agenda!"
Helen Kim, a member of the Redistricting Commission hearing Chai out, asked him if he had proof.
Chai promptly produced a letter from his breast pocket and read it aloud. More huge applause.
The letter, dated Jan. 24, 2011, has for months been passed around to activists and reporters (L.A. Weekly received a copy). It is addressed to Wesson and signed with the name of Brian Chong, owner of Moodaepo, a Korean BBQ restaurant.
The letter accuses Bae of soliciting campaign money from Koreatown businesses in exchange for Wesson guaranteeing "approval for any cases submitted through City Planning." Wesson and Bae deny the allegations.
Chong and Wesson claim the letter was clearly forged. Chong says somebody "tried to put me in a bad situation."
But many in the crowd who are familiar with the letter believe it is real. Chai, one of several organizers of Hands Across Koreatown, which wants the area placed in a single, cohesive City Council district, says, "The first generation, they don't want to sue, they don't want to cause any problems. The second generation is coming out and saying we don't want to deal with this anymore."
The group is urging Koreatown residents to link hands in the streets on Sunday, Feb. 12, at Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard to demand that Koreatown be represented by one council member instead of the current four, including Wesson.
For all its heart, Koreatown faces a tough battle. Experts say that up-in-arms Westchester and boiling mad Sunland-Tujunga face a better chance of changing the proposed borders.
Koreatown was likely to be split apart, more so than, say, San Pedro, Boyle Heights or Woodland Hills, which sit on the edges of the city and tend to be left whole. But central communities are chopped into from all angles during redistricting, something like the cutting of a pie that leaves the middle badly crisscrossed.
David Roberti, the powerful president pro tem of the California Senate from 1981 to 1993, and a member of the L.A. Redistricting Commission, predicts that Westchester and some other areas "will see change — the situation is very fluid."
And very political.
Although "communities of interest" are supposed to be preserved, L.A. City Councilman Bernard Parks and Perry, two of Wesson's critics, fared extremely poorly. The commission seeks to remove almost all of the booming downtown skyscraper district from Perry and hand it to Eastside Councilman Jose Huizar, a Wesson ally. And coveted Leimert Park — considered the heart of the black community — is to be moved out of Parks' District 8 and awarded to Wesson in District 10.
But redrawing the District 8–District 10 border to give Leimert Park to Wesson left Parks "short on population in District 8," explains Douglas Johnson of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College. All L.A. City Council districts must be of equal size, at about 250,000 people.
So, to replenish the thousands of bodies taken out of Parks' district, the Redistricting Commission took Westchester away from Councilman Bill Rosendahl, creating a District 8 that looks like a big tank flying a flag.
At a commission meeting several days ago with furious Westchester residents, Redistricting Commission Chairman Arturo Vargas admitted that the Westside gerrymander should not stand. But he insisted it was all "inadvertent."
Bernard Parks Jr., chief of staff for his father, doubts this, telling the Weekly, "The question we keep asking is where the map came from. If you went to the 15 meetings, there was no one who ever asked to be moved out of the 8th District into the 10th, and Westchester never asked to be moved out. It's entirely impossible to start out with shit and end up with anything else. If you put flowers on shit, it's still shit."
The mystery of where the maps came from points up the commission's decision to work secretly. Commissioner Kim urged her colleagues to do their work in public but Vargas argued for secrecy.
Roberti, who voted with Kim for transparency, says his "West and South" commission subgroup did not draw the Westchester/South L.A. boundaries. "The first time I saw the map was on the website," Roberti says. "It had to have been done by the commission's leaders" — an allusion to Vargas, appointed by the mayor.
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Another key player was Wesson's chief deputy, Andrew Westall, who left Wesson's employ to act as executive director of the commission. Westall's role is seen by many as a blatant conflict. Johnson, of the Rose Institute, says, "From the day Andrew Westall 'retired,' it was clear that Herb Wesson was really in control" of remapping L.A.'s voter districts.
Rosendahl says residents "are so angry in Westchester with this assault on them that I'm sure whoever is playing backroom politics will change their tune real quick. Or we'll fill the halls of City Hall like never before."
Where does that leave Koreatown, which is no longer just politely asking for a single representative?
"Could [the commission] find a way to do it?" Johnson asks. "Sure. And they probably should. Koreatown was hoping to be put together. Koreatown had high hopes."