Why you should care about City Council

This newsletter is…new

I grew up in a family that was highly engaged in politics. My grandfather worked for the city of Detroit. My grandmother was the President of her local League of Women Voters. Both of my parents can name every sitting US Senator by heart. My sister does political research for a living. We learned from a young age that we could influence how things worked as long as we paid attention.

In the last few years, I’ve realized that not everyone has had this kind of civic education. At my high school, the track coach taught civics so if it wasn’t for my parents, I wouldn’t even know where to start with local politics.

I don’t come to this work professionally. I am not a journalist or an academic. Through my volunteer work in Los Angeles, I have been following our government for many years. I’ve seen how confusing it is and I’ve watched people disengage from it. During this last election, I spoke with several people who did not know who they were voting for when they walked into a polling center. That scared me into starting this newsletter.

It often seems to me that our elected officials want us to be confused. They write insanely complex city council agendas. They withhold information in their newsletters. They make it hard to get a meeting with them. Do they want us to lose interest? Do they want us to stop paying attention?

I created this newsletter with the belief that it doesn’t have to be this way. Together, we will unpack how the government that serves Los Angeles works, why you should care and what you can do to change it.

We’re starting with City Council because they have been in the news quite a bit these last few days. They have a huge role to play in how Los Angeles responds to this crisis and they’re letting us down.

What is the Los Angeles City Council

LA City Council governs the city of LA. They oversee the city budget and create all laws that decide how we can conduct our lives and our businesses. This includes everything from how much housing costs to air quality to pothole repairs. Do you need a job? Are you worried about your rent going up? Wondering if anyone will help you out in this crisis? These are all policy initiatives well within their control.

Who are they?

There are 15 members of the council. If you go to a city council meeting, you’ll see the fancy intro video of them smiling and tossing their hair. It’s very LA.

Together, they represent a city of about 4 million people which means they each represent 200-300k residents. That’s roughly the entire population of Anchorage or Pittsburgh. For comparison, New York City has 51 city council members and Chicago has 50. So, you can see why some people say LA is dramatically underrepresented for its size.

How are they elected?

They are elected by the voters who live in their district. Below is a map of the council districts. The way city council districts are laid out can be confusing for two reasons: one is that LA City has other cities within its bounds (like Beverly Hills) and the other is that they are extremely gerrymandered. Notice how districts 4 and 5 snake around to combine vastly different neighborhoods? 

Our city charter actually requires that all the districts be redrawn every ten years. And guess who appoints the Redistricting Commission? Members of City Council along with the Mayor, the City Attorney and the City Controller.

Wait, but what does the Mayor do?

The Mayor sometimes submits recommendations to the City Council, most notably the proposed city budget. He can veto ordinances from City Council. He is the leading voice during times of crisis though he is often relaying the actions of the Council. He has his own staff and apparently, they do…something. Often, I hear people say LA has a “weak mayor” system. From what I can see, that doesn’t actually seem to be the case. City Council wields a lot of power but the Mayor definitely seems to have his share. We’ll look closer at this in a later issue.

Additional key players in our local government include the County Board of Supervisors who oversee LA County. There are only five of them. We’ll dive into what they do another time too.

The amount of people who run this city? It’s half the size of your average LAUSD classroom.

What does City Council do

City Council creates and passes the laws that govern the city of Los Angeles. To be specific, this includes:

  • 🏠 Housing—where it can be built, what type we build, how high it can be, how much it costs

  • 💡Utilities—what the rates are for utilities, where they can put infrastructure, how we reuse rainwater

  • 🚌 Transportation—how roads are used and repaired, where bike lanes and transit go, what safety measures protect pedestrians

  • 💼 Job creation—where to stimulate job growth, how criminal reentry programs work, how much minimum wage is

  • 🚓 Police—how much we pay for police, what they can get involved in and how the city responds to crime (LAPD is the biggest line item on our city budget)

  • 🚒 Emergency services—who oversees the city fire department, how we prepare and respond to fires, earthquakes and other natural disasters

  • ✈️ Airport operations—how ground transportation works at the airport, where to add more terminals and runways and who sits on the Board of Airport Commissioners (for LAX and Van Nuys airport) 

They also oversee parks, sidewalks, trees, street lights, trash pickup, recycling, the LA river, land use and my general happiness on any given day. They handle a whole lot about our lives in Los Angeles.

There are a few notable things not under their purview. Due to the breakdown of how County and City services work, LA City Council does not handle:

  • Mental health

  • Animal control

  • Child protective services and the foster care system

  • The Sheriff’s Department

It doesn’t really matter if you can keep this straight. It’s your government’s job to do that. I always start by reaching out to a city representative and sometimes they say “the county handles that” or “that’s the state’s job” and honestly, government is confusing as hell sometimes. They really seem to enjoy shuffling responsibility around.

How do I find my councilmember

You can find your councilmember by plugging your address into this Neighborhood Info tool.

Keep in mind, you may think you live in Los Angeles but you could live in West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Culver City, Burbank or Glendale. Within the bounds of the County of LA, there are a ton of cities. They have their own governments. Their own mayors, city councils and police forces. If the tool says “nothing found,” you might live in a different city. No matter where you live someone represents you and I am here to help you find them. Just hit reply.

How can I get involved

The best thing you can do is to start paying attention to what they’re doing.

  1. Subscribe to your councilmember’s newsletter. You can find this on their websites.

  2. Follow them on social media. Look out for information from them.

  3. Download the 311 app. You can use this to request city services like bulky item pickup or a tree blocking a sidewalk.

  4. Subscribe to City Council agendas. They have two sets of meetings: committees focused on certain issues and the general council meeting. (There is one happening this Tuesday with a lot of urgent actions around the COVID-19 crisis like a proposed rent freeze.)

  5. Voice your concerns to them. You can do this in one of three ways: write them an email, call them, or submit a public comment at a meeting. It’s ok if you’re not ready to do this yet. Once you start learning what they’re up to, you can reach out when you feel compelled.

One thing to know is that politicians are quite self-involved and they will pat themselves on the back in all these communications so they get re-elected. If you want the real story on their actions, you’ll also need to follow some other sources of information.

A few I trust:

Our City Council could be much more effective. They could use taxpayer dollars more efficiently. They could help support more people who are struggling. They could make our lives easier, safer and healthier. Find your City Councilmember and figure out what they are doing to help you, your family and your neighbors. You may be disappointed. That’s what elections are for.

As a Lyft driver once said to me “I can’t believe we have to work three jobs, feed our families and still find time to hold our representatives accountable!?” 

And unfortunately, we do. We have to find the time. I’m trying to make it a little easier.

Always paying attention
- Lex

Special thanks to Mike Batistick who gave notes on this issue