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Reform runs aground on redistricting

Some say the world will end in fire; some say it will end in ice. Others say the new city-charter effort will fizzle away for causes utterly unrelated to its objective of making the city run better.

There was, for instance, that disruptive proposed bill of rights. No, I don't want to get into that one again. It isn't officially dead, but the current consensus seems willing to let the federal Bill of Rights go on protecting our personal liberties. Minus a local facsimile.

Now there's the sudden and heated redistricting skirmish on voter representation, which still hasn't been scheduled for further airing in front of the Elected Commission.

The timing could not be much worse. We are 12 weeks away from the absolute deadline for a new charter proposal, yet over the past four months, the Elected Commission hasn't drifted any closer to consensus on any major issue.

This brawl was inadvertently instigated last month by LABA, the Los Angeles Business Advisors, which organization wants the charter to ordain a 35-seat council. LABA, as we've noted, is perhaps less interested in bloating the city legislature than in sequestering the elected-neighborhood-council crowd. Which includes some otherwise-Valley-separatists, Service Employees International Union Local 347 and, the last time I looked, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. LABA and its allies - which include business groups and the big trades unions - say they'll go to war against the entire charter if it includes "an extra layer of government."

Bad enough, you might say, that these factions have been fighting along this line all summer, when they should have been cooperating to create a coherent charter proposal. Then, last month, combat broke out on a new front: the issue of who might live in LABA's proposed new districts. And hey, presto, discord raged through territory that the entire charter-reform effort supposedly has nothing to do with - electoral redistricting.

The problem was that LABA, to sell its concept, had produced its own tentative 35-council-district map. The basic LABA assumption, of course, is that if most neighborhoods have their own council people, they won't want neighborhood councils. LABA's prospectus accordingly speaks of empowering those now left unrepresented - for instance, with an Asian-American district. And LABA promises that neighborhoods now split among several districts could become districts of their own.

Only problem was, the LABA backers apparently didn't stop to think - or reach out to discover - whether all minority groups wanted this kind of change. It turns out that they may not. Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) experts maintained - on what they claimed were LABA's own data - that if the size of the City Council was more than doubled, Latinos, at 40 percent of the population, might lose their (currently three-member) 20 percent on the 15-member panel. African-Americans - 13 percent of the population - also now have three council members. The LABA crapshoot would not extend but diminish their clout, MALDEF argued.

The Elected Commission's August 29 Saturday meeting, where this issue arose, actually began with a seeming consensus for increased council size. Even MALDEF, whose attorney Anthony Chavez there opposed the LABA proposal, earlier had a 19-member-council alternative in mind. But, after a salvo of fresh objections from MALDEF and its allies, the elected commissioners demurred on this crucial issue until a future meeting, where council size will share a crowded agenda with the similarly unresolved neighborhood-council affray. Instead of forging ahead, a number of commission members who happen to be running for various offices broke out into what one spectator called "campaign speeches not too related to matters at hand."

Talk about your parliamentary train wrecks. Right now, the best thing the Elected Commission could put before the voters next year would be a charter practically identical to the old one, with a few more powers allotted to the mayor.

But having raised the representation issue, the Elected Commission must now waste even more time on it. The African-American population, which stands to lose most by expanding the number of council districts, was somehow not represented among the speakers at last month's meeting. And I wondered if the Latino faction wasn't being myopic. Of course, less than half the 40 percent Latino population share presently votes - especially in some districts, like the 9th, where much of the Latino majority apparently consists of new Central American residents, many of whom are ineligible to vote.

And the Latinos have, after all, gained their precious barrio-breakout Valley 7th District. So you got the feeling that the MALDEF leadership was maybe guilty of what old Democrats used to call "stand-pat-ism." Or, even worse, were locking themselves into the limits of their recent gains - a Voters' Rights Act suit was even suggested to counter more council districts. (Elected Commission chair Erwin Chemerinsky sagely observed that for any such suit to be filed, there has to first be an election to determine whether the new bounds discriminate.) Overall, there seems to be something anti-visionary about locking up a charter - which might take another 72 years to rewrite - on the basis of census data potentially obsolete by year 2002.

But MALDEF attorney Chavez says that, by the best data currently available, the Latino population is too dispersed to obtain the 40 percent of council seats it deserves, even under the current 15-member-council system. He anticipates that soon Latino representation will max out to four members (26 percent) of the current council, and might come to five (roughly 27 percent) on a 19-member panel. He conceded that the 19-member council gives the Latinos an extra iota of clout, but said that MALDEF prefers the smaller size anyway, out of deference to the African-American population, which would lose with the larger council.

Unnerved by these arguments, the Elected Commission deferred its verdict on council size. Of course, a charter conference is no place to make decisions involving redistricting. We started with that. But I had two thoughts regarding Chavez's arguments.

First, they imply that, apart from the African-American segment, Los Angeles is desegregating. This is why, according to Chavez, even the 35-member LABA proposal can't foresee a council district with more than 22 percent voting Asians.

Secondly, it follows that - unfashionable thought - ethnicity may cease to be, for most of this city, the key indicator of representational fairness. As is suggested by the careers of Nate Holden - who represents a lot of Asians and Anglos; Mike Hernandez - who represents Chinatown and the white-bread heights of Mount Washington; and Tom Bradley - who represented us all.

Being There:

A Procedural Note

Sometimes a reporter must reconstruct a meeting. I didn't attend the all-day marathon meeting described above. But it was broadcast, tape was available, and I talked to participants.

I was at last Wednesday's Appointed Charter Commission meeting, though, where I heard L.A. City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie publicly vent disillusionment with the charter-reform process. Comrie has made these points before - particularly when it comes to granting more powers to the mayor, and particularly about the proposed loss of checks and balances and what he sees as a move toward New York City-type mayoral centralism, of which he has a very low opinion.

Two days later, I was jolted to see Comrie on Page 1 of the Times, making the same statements, headlined "Top City Official Declares War on Charter Reforms." Included was everything Comrie had said Wednesday. And for that matter, last month, when the same remarks were reported in the downtown daily Metropolitan News Enterprise - a paper that's becoming indispensable for its day-by-day charter reportage.

I was startled because Times reporter Jim Newton wasn't among the more than 100 people at the Wednesday meeting. And because the story seemingly appeared a day late. It turned out that Newton, however, rather than trying to reconstruct a meeting he'd skipped, interviewed Comrie the following day, when Comrie repeated himself. Newton then fed the CAO's comments to Riordan courtiers, one of whom called Comrie - one of the most respected public officials in the state - a village idiot. What hadn't been worth covering Wednesday thus became big news Friday.

Then, on the following Monday, reporter Jean Merl, in an impromptu, laudatory Comrie profile, reinforced the fresh-coined myth that Comrie had suddenly bared his soul to Newton by referring to Friday's alleged disclosure as "a real stunner."

Enough said.