Cal Matters logoViewed from afar, Los Angeles’ 13th City Council district looks fairly uniform: It’s liberal – perhaps the most liberal district in one of the most liberal cities in America. Voters here not only elect Democrats, but also agree to tax themselves to help pay for homeless services and public transportation.

If there are Donald Trump supporters here, they are well-hidden.

But the district is more complex than that. It’s huge, for one thing: It can take more than an hour to drive across its surface streets. Its western edge abuts the Sunset Strip. Moving east, it takes in clubs and bars and smoke shops and mom-and-pop stores. It contains parts of Little Armenia and Filipino Town. It has a large LGBTQ population.

Apartment buildings dominate most neighborhoods in the district. Eight out of 10 residents are renters, meaning that only about 20% own homes. It sweeps in police divisions and is home to the giant Kaiser Permanente hospital complex, as well as religious facilities for the Church of Scientology and the Self-Realization Fellowship.

The district sits right at the middle of Los Angeles, and it also is at the center of a long-running debate over representation. The LA City Council has 15 members, each of whom represents a district with some 260,000 residents – a number that critics say is a relic of late 20th century Los Angeles and out of touch with the modern city.

Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez represents the sprawling 13th district, and acknowledges that it can be difficult to get a clear sense of what constituents want. Rather than pretend to know what so many people are thinking on any given issue, Soto-Martinez trusts his instincts and his platform: He won the office as an advocate for renters, so he starts from that perspective when facing questions or an important decision.

“The thing that I think about the most is: ‘What did I run on?’” he said during a recent interview.

And yet, that’s not always a predictor. For example, talking with renters about transportation often reveals different views of how the City should approach that question, he said.

Still, he soldiers on.

Big districts make council members powerful. It also makes local representation difficult. It’s hard even for the best-intentioned elected representatives to reflect the will of their constituents when they range from Filipino immigrants to scientologists.

In response to the persistent complaint that many LA communities do not feel represented at City Hall, some have suggested enlarging the council, creating more districts but smaller ones. That would put Los Angeles more in line with New York, which has a 51-member council, and Chicago, which has 50 aldermen representing the same number of wards.

All of this part of a larger – and protracted – discussion about how best to allow Los Angeles to grow with its increasingly diverse population. As such, it’s both an exercise in local politics and a case study for California and the nation, as this city is at the leading edge of challenges in growth and diversity.

At a panel discussion Wednesday, Fernando Guerra, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, and Kathay Feng, vice president of programs for Common Cause, agreed that political reform is not only needed in Los Angeles but it’s long overdue. Expanding the council is an important part of that effort, they said during their appearance at UCLA’s Luskin Summit, though precisely how much the council should grow remains up for debate.

Guerra was part of a group of academics who formed the LA Governance Reform Project that has suggested growing the body from 15 to 25 members, 21 of whom would represent districts and four elected at large. The group’s draft recommendations argue that even that modest increase in size would elevate the status of some of the City’s bigger ethnic communities, notably Filipinos, Koreans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans.

Still, the addition of six more districts would hardly deliver neighborhood representation. A more significant expansion – say, tripling the council to 45 members – would bring down district sizes to the point that the immigrant communities of District 13, for instance, might end up with a representative of their own, while Hollywood homeowners might get one more in line with their priorities.

Elsewhere in the City, smaller districts might create opportunities for more gay or lesbian representation or even the election of a few Republicans to a council that currently has none.

A bigger council would be a profound change for City Hall, which has built up around the norms that come with 15 members. Today, the council acts as a legislative body, but its members also play a hand in running the government, happily boosting departments to tend to district issues.

The burden on City departments of having 45 bosses would be exhausting. To function effectively, new council members would have to retool their mission toward legislating and away from the current role of co-managing.

Moreover, even 45 districts would not give every group its own representative. Some of LA’s communities of interest are spread out – homeowners, for instance – so smaller districts would not always create new opportunities.

And then there are the politics of this idea. At Wednesday’s panel, Guerra and Feng both noted the disenchantment with the council, fueled by the distribution of a vile recording in 2022 of council members and union leaders casually discussing carving up the City to serve their interests, is partly what has given new life to the reform agenda.

To those voters who are angry with council members, however, expansion seems to offer more of the problem, not less. It’s hard to sell voters who are skeptical of their government on the idea that more of it is the solution – even if, in this case, more council members really means smaller council districts.

That’s choppy water for a ballot measure, and there’s history to suggest it won’t be easy. In 1999, Los Angeles voters approved charter reforms that strengthened the office of the mayor, created neighborhood councils and instituted a host of other reforms. At the same time, however, they rejected separate measures to increase the size of the council to 21 and to 25.

And yet, there are signs that this idea may finally be ripening. In the 1990s, council members fought off attempts to enlarge their group. Now, some are reluctantly coming around.

Councilman Soto-Martinez, for one, favors an increase. He’s considering what might be optimal, but he’s convinced that the existing structure needs improvement.

“It definitely needs to be bigger,” he said.

By Jim Newton. Originally published by CalMatters. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politicsKhari Johnson