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'Politics is at the heart of redistricting,' says LA commission chairman

By Hayley Fox
Published: Tuesday, February 21, 2012, at 10:18AM
Flickr via Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Arturo Vargas is a mayor-appointed commissioner and chairman of the L.A. redistricting commission.

Arturo Vargas may have the most difficult job in Los Angeles right now. Appointed by the mayor to the redistricting commission, Vargas is the committee's chairman and responsible for mitigating the overwhelming amount of feedback coming from council members, stakeholders and L.A. residents.

"The hardest thing I think is to make everybody happy and that's simply impossible to do," said Vargas.

Many of the commissioners are appointed by council members and have a responsibility to represent the interests of those specific constituents -- but Vargas is responsible for representing all of Los Angeles. Last week when 75 amendments were submitted to the draft map, Vargas submitted five, only on changes there seemed to be a public "consensus" on, he said.

He's taken great strides to ensure the redistricting process is transparent and reflective of the community's concerns, Vargas said. He asked commissioners to physically drive the current district boundaries to see first-hand what the territorial issues are and understand the priorities of each community.

But the public's input only has so much influence.

"Redistricting is the most political element of our form of democracy," Vargas said. He added that even at the state level, politics play a major role.

Saying the redistricting process has nothing to do with politics is like saying, "Catholicism has nothing to do with religion," Vargas said.

But this process isn't all about the politics -- or the people. There are legal requirements that the final map has to meet and every line change that occurs has a domino effect throughout the city.

Each council district is required to have approximately the same number of people in it, which breaks down to about 250,000 residents per district, Vargas said. The commission also has to abide by the Voting Rights Act, giving equal representation to all racial and ethnic groups within the L.A. Although the city's total population has only seen a small increase, Latino growth has surged.

"I don't think people have absorbed this shift that's happening in the city," Vargas said.

Fairly representing this drastically changing population is one of the requirements for the new map.

"That's a tension that hasn't really been recognized or appreciated by everyone in this process," he said.

Vargas is a redistricting veteran; he's served on the commission in 1991, 2001, and now, 2011. This time around around the "stakes are higher" and the whole process is much more "intense," he said. Many council members, including Ninth District's Jan Perry, will soon be termed out and their communities will have to elect a new representative.

No matter how carefully district lines are drawn, the size of the districts are just too large to adequately represent everyone's interests, Vargas said. Los Angeles has a population of about 3.7 million - but has only 15 city council members. Cities such as New York has 50 council members and Chicago has 51, he said.

Vargas said he hopes the redistricting process will help demonstrate the need for a larger L.A. city council. Although some L.A. residents may be resistant to the creation of more government, smaller districts would actually give Angelenos a louder voice, he said.

Residents shouldn't have to compete with 250,000 others for their council member's attention.

"It's very hard to call that local government," Vargas said.

The newest draft of the redistricting map is available online and includes the changes that were passed by the commission last week. The commission is meeting again tomorrow to vote on a final version of the map to present to the City Council.

Arturo Vargas also run's a non-profit called National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) which encourages Latinos to participate in the political process; from taking part in the census, to voting regularly and holding political leadership positions.

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