One year ago, Angelenos heard three city councilmembers have a conversation about the future of LA steeped in racism and homophobia.
Leaked on Reddit and circulated by Knock LA on Oct. 9, the conversation was recorded secretly in the fall of 2021. While councilmembers discussed critical decisions about the future of political representation in LA, they joked about Oaxacans (LA has the largest population of Oaxacans outside of the Mexican state of Oaxaca), Black children, and made disparaging remarks about “the Blacks.”
Now, one year later, a very different looking city council is finally taking up the cause of reform. Current Council President Paul Krekorian promised he would place this issue on the ballot in 2024 for voters to consider. And the council is currently considering proposals to set up an independent redistricting commission, expanding the number of council seats, and other reforms.
At the same time, all three of the councilmembers involved in the racist conversation are speaking out again. Only one of the three councilmembers remains on the LA City Council: Kevin de Leon, though he has been stripped of his committee assignments. And he is running for re-election despite persistent demands from activists that he resign. The other two — former City Council President Nury Martinez and Gil Cedillo — are currently talking to Los Angeles publications extensively about how they feel they were wronged by what happened.
What happened to the officials on the leaked audio tape?
While there may have been a reckoning on the council, the question of how the councilmembers racism and biases could have impacted the city remains. The conversation occurred at a moment when boundaries were being drawn for the 15 Los Angeles City Council districts, as well as the seven Los Angeles Unified School District areas. Some of the last touches were being put on a map of district lines proposed by the redistricting commission that was to be sent to the City Council for a final vote.
In that backroom conversation, the city council leaders — and the labor leader — treated the communities of Los Angeles like they were pawns on a chess board, when in fact, redistricting was nominally supposed to ensure that the people of Los Angeles would have a real voice, as expressed through the officials they elect to represent them at City Hall.
The labor leader heard on the tapes, Ron Herrera, also had to step down from his role as head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which serves as an umbrella organization for the unions around the city — and often plays an influential role in elections thanks to its members traditionally being able to mobilize during elections.
On the tapes, Martinez is heard saying that former Councilmember Mike Bonin’s Black son “parece changuito” (“looks like a little monkey,” in Spanish), she also refers to him by the Spanish equivalent of “darkie” and by a variety of other objectifying and racist language. In a recent post, Bonin said he has not forgotten what that felt like.
“I heard the voices of my colleagues attacking and mocking my little boy, describing him with ugly racist epithets, and laughing at the thought of beating him,” Bonin, who has since left the council, wrote in a recent blog post. “I can still hear Nury’s poisonous slurs and cruel laugh, and Kevin’s conspiratorial whisper and malicious tone.”
Councilmembers in the leaked audio are now trying to stage comebacks by talking to the press. Martinez, who has largely stayed out of the limelight this past year, reappeared in an LAist podcast interview and in which she struggles to answer if anti-Blackness is a problem in the Latino community. Instead, she says that it’s not even a problem in her household.
“I do not know if today I’m the right person to have those conversations. Do I believe they need to be had? Yes. I’m just being honest,” she told LAist. “I just don’t know how to answer that.”
Cedillo, who entertained racist conversations about Oaxacans in the leaked recording, sat for an interview with Telemundo in which he denied anything racist was said in the tapes.
“I didn’t say anything racist. How can you say I was part of a racist conversation? Where’s the racism? Where’s the N-word? There’s no racism,” he said.
And de Leon was featured in a Los Angeles Times story examining his steady efforts to return to the public stage, appearing more often for community photo opportunities as he launched a re-election campaign. Herrera, the former labor leader, also had a cameo, as one of the donors to de Leon’s campaign.
Maria Villamil, who works to increase voter engagement, said that as a consequence of the behavior revealed in the city council tape, very little progress has been made on serious issues impacting Angelenos like homelessness and the housing crisis.
“Those are some of the things that we have not been able to really focus on — the resources and the needs of these really clear things that are happening around the city,” she said.
Villamil works for California Native Vote Project, which aims to increase the political voice of Indigenous communities through voter education and increased census participation. They are part of Our LA, a coalition made up of different community groups that reflect the diversity of Los Angeles that formed, after the leaked tapes went public, to push for reforms.
Villamil, who spoke to LA Public Press during a City Council committee meeting on reform, said the efforts underway at the city is an “opportunity to have a reform where the leaders are leading with solidarity to the people.”
She said they are aiming to create “a process where each of the councilmembers are doing the best that they can, with urgency, to alleviate the situation around the racist comments that were made … the trust that community members have to have in the leadership of Los Angeles.”
As for how far the reform efforts have progressed, Villamil and others say there is definitely still much more ground to cover.
What is the LA City Council doing next?
Members of the City Council, led by Council President Paul Krekorian, have been meeting since February 2023 to consider reform measures. The councilmembers on this reform committee have entertained several possible options, but have focused primarily on one that would make redistricting fairer by taking the decision-making power out of the hands of the council and putting it into an independent commission.
Just a few days before the one-year anniversary leak story breaking, the committee approved recommendations to create an independent redistricting commission. Krekorian, who replaced Martinez, has said that he hopes to give the public about a month to review the proposal before it would be considered by the full city council.
Krekorian has said that setting up an independent redistricting commission is an important step to take in the aftermath of the leaked audio, and has promised he would place this issue on the ballot in 2024 for voters to consider.
But for at least one member of the committee, Eunisses Hernandez, the creation of an independent redistricting commission is not enough.
Hernandez, who beat Cedillo in the 2022 election, and is now a member of the Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform, said that while she believes the city council did a good job with the bulk of the independent redistricting commission proposal. Hernandez says reform efforts prompted by the leaked audio should be taken up by a charter commission that is separate from the City Council, because the proposed charter commission’s “whole job is to focus on doing this right, doing it ethically, doing it so that the council is not having to police itself.”
Hernandez said that, for example, one key issue that divided communities in the last redistricting process was which council districts would get major economic assets and landmarks. Currently, she said, that’s a question that has yet to be resolved in the redistricting package headed to the council. The fights over that led to divisions particularly in South Los Angeles districts in the last redistricting, and was a major topic of discussion in the leaked audio as well.
Los Angeles last had charter commissions in 1997, and those commissions suggested sweeping changes, which voters approved in 1999, overhauling the previous city charter originally established in 1925 and that had been amended piecemeal through the years. A new charter commission would have the ability to reform the city charter, which is essentially a constitution for the city.
And while it is not clear what issues a charter commission would take on, a recently introduced motion hints at several issues that could be taken up as part of a possible charter reform package to put to voters.
Possible issues the commission could conceivably take on include cleaning up charter language that address what happens when the suspension of public officials may become necessary, especially given a succession of recent councilmembers who have been arrested and convicted of crimes as part of corruption scandals.
Other possible reforms include strengthening the city’s Ethics Commission, which evaluates ethics complaints against councilmembers, as well as changing what powers different officials in the city have, especially those who have had a history of inspiring more corruption. One proposed idea for that is to give councilmembers less power over land use and development decisions, in light of corruption scandals that tie directly to councilmember’s ability to sign off on development projects, which has been abused by some members to get favors from developers.
But for now, the other major proposal, aside from independent redistricting, that has attracted a good deal of interest from some councilmembers and community groups is to shrink the size of the council districts. Currently each council district represents more than a quarter million people, larger than in most major cities including New York and Chicago. But while the city governance committee has heard some presentations on the topic, councilmembers have yet to wade into any kind of substantive discussion on council expansion despite strong interest from some of its members, like Hernandez and fellow committee member Nithya Raman. Those who support shrinking council districts and increasing the number of seats on the city council from 15, say it would reduce the ratio of residents to councilmember, giving the public a better chance of getting their councilmembers to address their needs.
Meanwhile, Hernandez is hoping to push for the subject of redistricting to be taken up by a charter commission, instead of solely by the City Council, even though Krekorian has expressed concern that a possible charter commission process would get in the way of putting that issue onto the ballot quickly. And others, like Raman, have raised concerns about moving ahead with a redistricting proposal without considering it together with a council expansion proposal.
“For years … the city council has had a thumb in this redistricting process, has not had oversight and accountability, and you see that with the number of colleagues that are getting impacted by incarceration because of, you know, not following laws,” Hernandez said in reference to multiple former and current city councilmembers being indicted and convicted of corruption.
“I understand the urgency and yes, we need to push urgently,” she said. “But we can also build this commission with urgency so that they can begin this analysis and so that we can get this on the ballot as soon as possible.”
What resources are useful to better understand the reform process?
- The City Council’s Ad Hoc Committee on City Governance Reform is expected to continue meeting to take up reform proposals, such as council expansion, based on its chairs statements. The agendas are posted here. Here are a few council files that pertain to reform issues:
- 22-1196-S1 (CFMS): This is the main council file for the current reform process.
- 22-1196 (CFMS): This is the council file that calls for staff to report back on what needs to be done to put a charter reform measure on the ballot.
- 22-1197 (CFMS): This was the original council motion that set up the city governance reform committee.
- 23-1027 (CFMS): The motion calling for a charter commission can be found here. Some councilmembers may be pushing for existing and future reform proposals to be taken up by such a commission.
- The Our LA coalition was formed under Catalyst California, which was formerly named Advancement Project California. They have been holding meetings around the city to gather input from different communities about what “BIPOC and low-income Angelenos” want to see in the reforms. Their website includes recommendations and updates about their community convenings.
- The Fair Rep LA is a group that closely follows the reform efforts, and provides alerts on important, upcoming meetings on the issue. They make recommendations on reform proposals, and its website provides resources for understanding redistricting, including a tutorial, and council expansion.
- Unrig LA is a group that has formed coalitions to work on ethics reform and follows Los Angeles city politics closely, including council meetings and elections, through a Twitter account and a debate tracker.
- California Common Cause is an organization that advocates for government and campaign finance reform. They have monitored and worked on the state’s citizen redistricting commission, and has pushed for more local governments to draw their district lines through an independent process. The group is been closely analyzing and actively engaging in Los Angeles city reform efforts, including providing recommendations on the independent redistricting process and council expansion.
- The League of Women Voters of Greater Los Angeles is an organization that promotes civic engagement and education, including in the city of Los Angeles. They are a source of local elections and political history. The group commissioned a handbook on Los Angeles city government, which was written by Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs and former Cal State Los Angeles political science professor who was director of one of the two charter commissions set up during the last major charter reform overhaul in 1999.
- LA Forward Institute is an organization that works to build progressive power. They have hosted debates for local elections and done teach-ins on charter reform, and a variety of other issues integral to ongoing political and policy conversations that Los Angeles city officials are working on. Their website includes videos of past teach-ins and a place to subscribe to their newsletter, which is written by journalist Alissa Walker.
- The LA Governance Reform Project is a group of academics who began meeting last fall to come up with recommendations for reform proposals. Their interim report can be found on their website. Their team includes professors from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, the University of Southern California, Pomona College, Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles.