Who Lost K-Town … Revisited

MAILANDER MUSINGS - "Commissioner Kim was the first commissioner to become irrelevant," a source close to the City of Los Angeles's Redistricting Commission told me after reading my piece on why Koreatown was split in two and her response to it.  "At one point, the City Attorney reprimanded her for the kind of email she was sending out."

Commissioner Helen Kim is certainly not shy of using strong, insistent language to make a point.  Indeed, as she has persistently when opposing the Redistricting Commission's broader actions, she used some strong language last Monday regarding an article I wrote here at CityWatch. (Link) She drew some distinctions from the way sources reported things to me.

But in fact, I found in reading her letter to CityWatch and in a subsequent discussion with her, that there's very much that we agree on, and very little on which we disagree regarding the question of "Who lost Koreatown?"--how Koreatown came to be split in two by the City's Redistricting Commission.

When approaching the question of how Koreatown came to be split in two, it was important to me to note that Commissioner Kim was not appointed by any Councilmember, but by Controller Wendy Greuel--a City official with a mandate to act in the interest of the entire city.  It was my belief that as the nominee of an elected official who was elected by a citywide vote, Commissioner Kim should have placed the interests of all the people of the City of Los Angeles above the interests of a particular identity group, or even a particular community.

As should have Arturo Vargas, appointed by Mayor Villaraigosa to chair the Commission.

But both of these commissioners worked especially in service of their own narrow priorities.  Chairman Vargas, as expected, consistently acted in ways that favored Latinos and Latino districts, while Kim, as expected, acted consistently in ways that championed Korean-American unity.  

Though both of them made excellent recommendations regarding other parts of the City that didn't involve their priorities, both of them prioritized the interests of specific identity groups above these other concerns.  As appointees of office-holders who were elected by the entire City, they should not have put any identity group above any others.

In fact, both the Mayor and Controller Greuel assured identity-group rancor by nominating Commissioners stridently affiliated with identity groups, rather than Commissioners with less entrenched racial affiliations.  Both the Mayor and the Controller, with Citywide rather than district mandates behind them, made irresponsible, highly identity-charged appointments that may yet conspire to invalidate the Commission's work to-date.

And so too did Herb Wesson, now the City Council President.  Wesson didn't enjoy authority as Council President when making his Commission nomination, but when he was certain to assume this mantle, he should have appointed someone as his own Commissioner who might be more cautious and less insistent about African-American representation than attorney Chris Ellison, who often bought into Commissioner Kim's baiting, and on whose email responses to various challenges the Korean-American community will most likely base their challenges.

Recognizing this much and more early on, I approached neither Chairman Vargas nor Commissioner Kim, whom I considered identity politics apparatchiks, both eager to burnish the draft with Voting Rights Acts contentions on behalf of their own identity group.  I saw them all as intensely partisan identity-group apologists, too strident to inform the real story of who lost Koreatown very well.  After all, Vargas is also the top officer at a national Latino organization, and Commissioner Kim is on the Board of Directors of the Korean American Coalition, whose purpose is to promote "civil rights interests of the Korean American community."

(However, I did approach Controller Wendy Greuel's office, to ask about the Controller's interactions with Commissioner Kim.  And as I reported in my piece, Controller Greuel's office would express nothing more than the hope for "transparency" involving the process.  This scarcely seemed like real transparency to me, as I said in my piece). (Link)

Nor did I approach Commissioner Ellison, who indicated early on that his overriding interest was to make Council President Herb Wesson's district more of a lock for an African American candidate than it is presently.

Let me make clear that I don't blame either Vargas or Commissioner Kim … or Commissioner Ellison either … for any redistricting commission outcome, nor for accepting their appointments; they are what they are, hired guns who were expected not to serve the broad interest of the City but the narrow interests of specific identity groups.  No, I blame Mayor Villaraigosa, Council President Wesson and Controller Greuel for appointing these kind of Commissioners from their own citywide perches of power, thereby not putting the whole City's interests ahead of the interest of the identity groups these key  Commissioners represented.

At minimum, all parties agree that the idea to put Koreatown in Wesson's district was posited at some point early on, by somebody, and that somebody balked at the idea.  Who balked may not indeed be as important as the fact that the idea itself was posited and was subsequently scrapped.  Thereafter, the idea of placing Koreatown in a single district was lost, and Commissioner Kim was seen by a majority as an antagonist to the proceedings.

It is also important to note that Commissioner Kim was not the only Commissioner who ever had a discussion with Korean leadership about Koreatown interests.  While she may be speaking completely true to her own Commission experience, her own discussions with other Commissioners--especially as a Commissioner appointed by the City Controller rather than a specific Council district--were not the only discussions Commissioners had about Koreatown, nor would it have been appropriate for them to have been, as Koreatown before redistricting was spread out over no less than four Council districts.

"Is a discussion in a shared ride in an elevator a meeting in violation of the Brown Act?" someone close to the proceedings asked me, trying to address some of Commissioner Kim's concerns.

Commissioner Kim herself comes close to acknowledging as much in her own Minority Report, which was also signed by two other commissioners.  For example, her report quotes a Downtown News editorial that acknowledges "back-door dealing, potential Brown Act violations, power grabbing and land grabbing"--and in her response to my original article, she also talks of potential Brown Act violations.  

Certainly, if any of these kinds of activities occurred on the Commission, Commissioner Kim's own discussions about the fate of Koreatown would not be the exclusive discussions about Koreatown that took place, and it's she herself who suggests that many discussions about Koreatown were likely to have taken place entirely out of her earshot and even without her knowledge.

So I don't think that Commissioner Kim and I are in fact disputing very much at all that is relevant to the broader story of how Koreatown came to be split in two by the redistricting commission, obviously against Commissioner Kim's wishes.  The City now faces a potentially costly and traumatizing lawsuit defending itself against Commissioner Kim's various protestations.  

Nonetheless, given the sharpness and insistence with which Commissioners Kim, Ellison, and Chairman Vargas have contributed to the overall story of splitting Koreatown, I now have an even clearer picture of the substance and even the tenor of the Commission's discussions on Koreatown than I even did before.  

In fact, I am now more confident than before that Mayor Villaraigosa, Council President Wesson, and Controller Greuel did a great disservice to the City of Los Angeles when they appointed such identity-partisan Commissioners as Vargas, Ellison, and Kim to re-draw our city's Council districts.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at street-hassle.blogspot.com.)

Tags: Joseph Mailander, Mailander Musings, LA City Redistricting, K-Town, Koreatown, Helen Kim, Wendy Greuel, Herb Wesson

Vol 10 Issue 28
Pub: Apr 6, 2012