Calls for Venice cityhood are more about improving representation than gaining independence

By Michael Feinstein

The author served on the Santa Monica City Council from 1996 to 2004 and was mayor from 2000 to 2002. A co-founder of the Green Party of California, he is the Green candidate for California Secretary of State in the June primary election.

The notion of Venice breaking away from Los Angeles to pursue independent cityhood reached a high-water mark in the public consciousness with last Thursday’s “Uprising: VEXIT Town Hall Discussion” hosted by the Venice Neighborhood Council.

The detail-packed two-hour session focused on legal pathways, rationales and political strategies for achieving cityhood, including questions of economic viability. All are necessary, informative and stimulating topics, but the central democratic calculus of an independent Venice — What kind of democracy do Venetians want? — was mostly absent.

At the heart of cityhood is whether people feel heard and represented by their local government and, if not, what kind of local government is a better way to get there. It’s easy to say “more local is better,” but “what kind of local” is really determinate. Without it, the Venice cityhood vs. staying in Los Angeles debate remains mostly theoretical and academic.

Ultimately, whether an independent Venice would work for most Venetians could depend on who gets elected to its city council.


A Venice City Council

Let’s assume most Venetians would want the diversity of Venice to have a seat at the table of their new local democracy. The best way to get there is to have a large enough city council, combined with ranked choice voting and public financing of elections.

Most California cities (except the largest) have city councils of five or seven members, with roughly half the members elected every two years to staggered four-year terms. Having seven council members would naturally create more opportunity for representation than five.

Ranked choice voting (RCV) describes voting systems that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, without fear that ranking others will hurt the chances of their favorite candidate. An RCV system then uses those rankings to elect candidates able to combine strong first-choice support with the ability to earn second- and third-choice support until candidates reach the election threshold.

RCV is already in use for single-seat city council districts in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. It ensures the winner receives a majority of the vote without requiring a separate runoff election, while simultaneously giving voters more general election choices.

When used in multi-seat, multi-winner contests (such as an at-large council election for a newly independent Venice), RCV is a form of proportional representation, because the winning threshold is proportional to the number of seats up for election. This empowers diverse groups of voters to elect candidates of choice, promoting diversity of political viewpoints and candidates of varied background and demographics.

Then there is the cost of running for office. Venice could lower the cost of campaigning and educate more voters by providing free time on local public airwaves for all candidates and candidate debates, because as an independent city Venice would be entitled to free municipal channels as part of its cable TV franchise contract.

Charter City vs General Law City

Democracy isn’t just about elections, but how much authority to govern you have between them. California state law provides two options for cities to organize: under the general laws of the state or under a charter adopted by the local voters.

Charter cities have more autonomy than general law cities with respect to municipal affairs, because charter cities can enact and enforce local ordinances different than the state, and place protections like rent control in their city charter. Given the gentrification and development pressure upon Venice, Venetians would want the extra legislative and legal tools that come with being a charter city.

Los Angeles is already a charter city, and its charter already includes protections like rent control. Any Venice cityhood effort would want to review the Los Angeles charter to make sure essential rights and protections are not lost in the transition.


More Voice within Los Angeles

One of Vexit’s ironies is that issues most cited as a reason for an independent Venice — gentrification and homelessness — actually have their solutions in regional (and statewide) policies and practices. In that sense, Venice is already part of such a regional body: the enormous (502.7 square miles) City of Los Angeles. L.A. has a lot of lobbying power in Sacramento, more than would a tiny city of approximately 30,000 people.

Therefore, it’s worth comparing the benefits of Venice cityhood to an improved democracy in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has the lowest per capita council representation of any U.S. city — 266,000:1— resulting from having only 15 city council members to represent 4 million people. Not one state other than California has even state assembly districts as populous as L.A. City Council districts.

Increasing the number of city council seats and electing candidates to them by ranked choice voting could make it easier for city government to reflect L.A.’s great diversity, either via smaller single-seat districts or new three-member multi-seat districts. New York City, for example, has 51 council members (a ratio of 160,000:1), and Chicago has 50 (54,000:1).


An Issue Not Going Away

All of this is not to say that Venice’s representatives on the L.A. City Council haven’t tried to be responsive. They have, and I personally support Councilman Mike Bonin and supported Bill Rosendahl before him.

But, by definition, extremely large single-seat, winner-take-all district elections are limited in their ability to represent all voices; and separate from political representation, delivery of services in a behemoth like Los Angeles has its challenges.

Both are reasons why this debate within L.A. will continue, in Venice and beyond.