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A District Divided

Will City Council redistricting diminish the clout of the collective Orthodox community?

by Mike Levy

April 4, 2002 | 7:00 pm

As the City Council begins it consideration of Redistricting Commission-drawn district maps, a conflict between Valley activists and Jewish interests seems to have been resolved. But as proposed districts are scrutinized and rescrutinized block by block, the question of whether the 5th City Council District will contain three core Orthodox neighborhoods remains open.

Council District 5 has historically contained core Jewish communities on both sides of Mulholland, including the Chandler corridor and the Fairfax and Pico-Robertson areas. A push to include five districts wholly within the San Fernando Valley and only one district split between the Valley and city threatened to separate Valley Jewish communities from their city counterparts, diminishing a strong Jewish influence in the City Council.

For the first time, wrangling over Council district lines was conducted in open hearings this year, with the new city charter creating a special Redistricting Commission composed of 21 members appointed by the City Council, mayor and city attorney.

Though the final redistricting plan will be decided by the City Council, the Redistricting Commission collected and helped implement public input. On average, Los Angeles' 15 Council districts encompass 246,000 people each. The Council will approve a final map by June 30.

Redistricting commonly pits myriad interests against each other. Part of the difficulty in keeping the Chandler corridor in the 5th District derived from unrelated disputes between neighboring districts.

Valley activists like Richard Close, chair of the secession group Valley VOTE, wanted five Council districts entirely within the Valley to better represent concerns specific to the Valley.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the 5th District, and chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting (composed of five councilmembers) says, "It's interesting to see how the overheated desire of those who want to split the city apart almost directly conflicted with the representative needs of an important constituency."

Weiss adds that, unlike pro-Valley secession activists, he approves of the Valley-City districts. "I think it is good for the City of Los Angeles to have districts that straddle Mulholland. It forces officials to be less parochial," he says.

Close was appointed to the Redistricting Commission by former 2nd District City Councilman Joel Wachs. For Close, keeping Jewish neighborhoods together takes a back seat to ensuring proportional Council representation for the Valley. "There were drafts discussed without [the Chandler corridor] in the 5th District," he explains. "The problem is, the 5th District is probably the longest district. We understand that Jack Weiss wanted the Fairfax district as well as the Chandler-Burbank area. Many ethnic groups came to us and testified to their interests. But if you have one ethnic neighborhood down in San Pedro and another in Chatsworth, you just can't draw that into a district. The big problem we had was compactness was not consistent with some community interests.

"When we do districts, we're supposed to be blind to race, religion and ethnicity," Close says. But the commission does consider the needs of "communities of interest." Commissioner Ron Turovsky, appointed by Weiss, says the ties that bind a community of interest can be a "whole range of factors," including ethnic or religious groups as well as distinct neighborhoods.

Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek Congregation was among those voicing concern that Los Angeles' Orthodox community would be split. "We do see ourselves as a single entity," he says. "You're talking about a very large Jewish community that is very unified -- which can be very advantageous." Together in the same council district, says Tendler, "We have shared issues and shared support."

The Jewish community and Valley representation controversies were only a small part of the litany of issues faced by the Redistricting Commission over the course of 11 public hearings since November 2001.

The map of the 5th District that the Redistricting Commission has sent to the City Council includes the Chandler corridor area, attached via Laurel Canyon Boulevard to the main body of the district, which includes Bel Air and Westwood and extends east as far as Highland Avenue.

Close is pleased that the plan, as proposed, includes the five Valley districts, but says, "The real question is, is the City Council going to meddle in the process?... Was the Redistricting Commission just a façade?"

At the final hearing on March 26, Ruth Galanter, whose 6th District has been moved from Venice to Van Nuys, told the commission, "Of course we're going to meddle with the lines you decide."

At the same meeting, 13th District City Councilman Eric Garcetti called the redistricting process "intensely imperfect." That process, now nearly completed with the finalization of the commission's proposals, is still subject to tinkering. But Weiss believes the Jewish communities of the 5th District will stay together.

"We're talking about a community that has made their interests known," Weiss says.

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