Two Long Beach councilmembers are sparring over how to carve up their city’s district maps, and they’re both crying “foul.”
Eighth District Councilmember Rae Gabelich criticized a new map that would benefit the seventh district under Councilmember James Johnson, calling it a “land grab.” Johnson said Gabelich’s alternative plan would involve “gerrymandering.” Both city officials organized community meetings this week to discuss the issue, and both are drawing different conclusions about how best to redraw the city district lines. (Johnson had scheduled a community meeting at the Bixby Knolls Community Church for Thursday, June 30 where residents would also discuss the redistricting process, but, due to press deadlines, the Signal Tribune can only report this week on Gabelich’s meeting.)
In anticipation of the July 5 City Council meeting when councilmembers will vote on the redistricting map, Gabelich has a number of community residents on her side. Last Tuesday at a community meeting, Gabelich encouraged supporters to reject the City’s plan and at the same time support her own redistricting plan.
At The Expo Building in Bixby Knolls, Gabelich addressed a room full of attendees where many applauded Gabelich’s criticisms of Johnson and praised her efforts to fight a redistricting proposal that was narrowly passed by the Council last month and would be further discussed at the City Council in a few days. That proposal would hand over a large portion of the Bixby Knolls business district to the seventh district under the jurisdiction of Johnson. A few attendees held yard signs that read “Don’t Break Bixby Knolls,” among the organizers’ estimate of 250 to 300 people who attended the June 28 meeting.
“I have to say I was really impressed from the turnout from the Bixby Knolls–Los Cerritos eighth district neighborhoods,” Gabelich said. “You know, they want to go along with what’s defined as the least impact to the community as possible. Obviously, the Johnson map does not do that. It takes a land grab of 2.5 times the number of people that are required.”
Following the release of the US Census numbers that reflected population shifts within the city of Long Beach, members of the City Council are still disputing just how to divide the more than 460,000 people among the city’s nine districts.
Long Beach’s charter requires that each district serve roughly an equal number of inhabitants. Since there are changes to the population numbers within individual districts, the eighth district must give up a portion of its geography to the seventh district, according to a report by Tom Modica, director of Government Affairs and Strategic Initiatives for the City.
Figures available from the Long Beach redistricting website indicate that the “ideal population” number for each district should come close to 51,362.
Under the new plan in consideration next week, Johnson’s district would have just over 53,000 inhabitants. The plan calls for Johnson’s district to gain a trapezoid-shaped area that represents about 3,382 residents. However, after other changes are set in place, his district would only be 3.3 percent above that ideal population figure. That figure is within the redistricting guidelines that councilmembers agreed to in March.
And even though he would be gaining more residents under this plan, Johnson said it’s not about “taking votes.”
“It’s about making sure that under the US Constitution, City Council districts represent approximately equal numbers of population,” Johnson said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “That’s what our mission is. Additionally, our mission under the guidelines adopted unanimously by City Council was to do that in a way that preserved communities of interest, followed commercial corridors and kept districts compact.”
The Bixby Knolls area is at the heart of the debate over the redistricting process. The proposed area’s borders follow Atlantic Avenue on the east, Orange Avenue on the west side, and Bixby Road along the south side. San Antonio Drive juts out at a northwest line to create the proposed area’s upper border.
It’s a large chunk of real estate that would be removed from the eighth district.
Gabelich criticized the plan and called for residents to ask the Council to reject the new district boundaries. The eighth district councilmember presented her own proposal for the community’s review. Under her proposal, a triangular section north of San Antonio Drive and another section just south of 37th Street would be offered to Johnson’s district.
Johnson criticized Gabelich’s alternative plan.
“I’m not open to other ideas that gerrymander the district, which of course, is what moving north of San Antonio would do,” said Johnson of Gabelich’s plan. “But I am open to other ideas that meet our constitutional guidelines to redistrict in a way that’s as positive as possible for the community.”
Gabelich argued against the current plan that joins the neighborhoods known as Bixby Terrace, Bixby Highlands, Old Bixby and New Bixby. “These are all areas of the city that were developed at different times,” Gabelich said. “And I would say, other than having, sharing the Bixby name, that’s about all they have in common.”
Johnson rejected this argument and described how locals already do many things in different parts of the region.
“It is one community, and it doesn’t matter what the council lines are,” said Johnson. “It’s going to continue to be one community. When I talk to residents in Bixby Terrace, they talk to me about the excitement of First Fridays. When I talk to residents in California Heights, my own neighbors, they talk to me about the importance of eating out and walking out to the Corridor, taking friends from Los Angeles and other places and showing off the incredible improvements.”
Another major concern that Gabelich voiced is that the current proposal before the City Council essentially divides the Bixby Knolls business district that runs along Atlantic Avenue.
The process had to “focus” on populated areas, not on areas of non-population (which included business areas and parks), according to the criteria that was agreed upon by the councilmembers in March. But that’s exactly Gabelich’s problem with the proposed plan. The councilmember said that Atlantic Avenue’s business corridor shouldn’t be split between two districts.
“It’s like trying to operate under two mayors. You can’t do that,” said Gabelich in an interview Tuesday night as she recalled the amount of work her office and the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association had invested over the years to grow the businesses in the area and to generate community support. “The possibility of having two people that have their own vision? There will be a division. And what hurts me is that I can see this going in the wrong direction for Bixby Knolls.”
A number of residents who attended Tuesday night’s meeting agreed, including Cal Gurule, a 31-year resident in the Bixby Knolls area who says he lives on the border between the seventh and eighth districts.
Gurule said he doesn’t want to see the Atlantic Corridor split up. “It shouldn’t…have to deal with two councilmen to get anything done there in that district,” he said.
“There’s a whole new look to the street there,” Gurule said. “And I just want it…to continue.”
A few Long Beach residents who spoke up at the meeting said that there might be an advantage in having two council members represent the same area in City Council.
That’s a point that Johnson continued to make. He said that other business areas in the city with more than one representative have been successful, noting that the downtown area is shared by two councilmembers. He also added that he already represents a portion of the Bixby Knolls business district.
Both council members acknowledge that they did discuss other alternative plans. One of Johnson’s alternative plans included adding the Los Cerritos neighborhood to the seventh district. But Gabelich rejected that idea. That’s where she lives.
The city must present their revised district boundaries to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder by Aug. 31, in time for the 2012 elections, according to the redistricting website at longbeach.gov/redistricting.