Why the Five-Member Board of Supervisors Structure is an Outdated Relic
California’s independent redistricting commission is struggling to satisfy all demands as it draws new legislative and congressional district maps to reflect the 2020 census.
The commission is being inundated with requests from self-defined “communities of interest” — geographic, economic, cultural and/or political — to have districts which maximize their clout in the halls of government.
Even with 80 Assembly districts, 40 state Senate districts and 52 congressional districts to manipulate, it’s simply impossible for the commission to satisfy everyone, given the size and complexity of the state.
As difficult as the task may be, however, it’s much easier than what another commission is trying to do in Los Angeles County, whose 10 million residents are a quarter of the state’s population and an even more diverse assemblage than the state as a whole.
Districts Have More People Than Some States
The county’s commission has the unenviable task of stuffing its complex mélange of communities into just five county supervisor districts, each of which has more people than 15 small states.
Historically, the five Los Angeles County supervisors redrew their own districts every 10 years and in doing so, protected the incumbents by making minimal changes in boundaries. However, the board’s maps failed to account for sharp increases in the county’s Latino population and Latino leaders persuaded the Legislature to intervene with 2016 legislation that created the independent commission, despite the supervisors’ opposition.
“The 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission is nearing a Dec. 15 deadline for a final map,” the Los Angeles Daily News notes. “But the group is still mulling over the daunting challenge of ensuring that one group’s benefits don’t come at the expense of others — whether it is Latinos in the San Gabriel Valley, Black residents in the heart of L.A., Armenians in the tri-city areas or Asian-American people in the San Gabriel Valley and L.A.”
“Any map that we select is going to be a compromise,” Commissioner Mark Mendoza said last week during a four-hour-plus meeting. “We’re not going to be able to satisfy everybody.”
Given that it has just five districts to draw, the most daunting aspect of the commission’s chore is to reflect the fact that nearly half of the county’s population is Latino, which would seem to entitle the community to at least two of the five seats.
Should Board of Supervisors be Expanded?
However, to satisfy demands from Latino groups for proportionality makes it very difficult to maintain an historic practice of setting aside one of the five seats for the Black community, since it is no more than 8% of the county’s population and Asians are twice as numerous. The commission will soon issue its maps and they probably will face sharp criticism from those who believe they have been mistreated.
The obvious solution has been kicking around for years, to no avail — enlarging the five-member board at least to nine seats and even better, to 11 or 13.
There’s nothing magic about having five-member county boards of supervisors. It’s a holdover from California’s 19th century agrarian past. Alpine County, with 1,100 residents, has a five-member board and so does Los Angeles, with 10 million. The only exception is the City and County of San Francisco, which has an 11-member Board of Supervisors. Moreover, the City of Los Angeles has a 15-member City Council.
Los Angeles County’s supervisors have opposed previous enlargement proposals and local voters have rejected them eight times over the last century, thanks to opposition from special interests that prefer the status quo. However, the case for expansion is compelling, as the machinations by the county redistricting commission again underscore.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of them working for California newspapers. He now writes for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.