Democracy in Cambodia Town; Support for Citizens Redistricting Charter Amendment Pushes Forward in Long Beach

MAYE center 5

Marc Coleman (left) and Alex Norman (right) of Equity for Cambodians, along side Khmer translator Sereivuth Prak (middle), discussing Long Beach’s City Council districts. Photo by: Erin Foley.

Author: Joe Brizzolara / August 5th, 2018

It’s Saturday morning in Cambodia Town. Inside a homey community center, long-time civil rights attorney Dr. Marc Coleman gives the crowd a brief history on the structure of Long Beach’s City Council.

When he first got to Long Beach in the 1970s, city council was elected in at-large elections. Largely believed to be undemocratic, at-large elections have entire jurisdictions elect legislative bodies as a single electorate. This gives dominance to the areas of town with the highest voter turnout, typically the most affluent areas. In Long Beach, this meant that power was concentrated on the east side.

Long Beach Area Citizens Involved fought to successfully transition the city from at-large to district elections in the 1980s. This allowed less represented sections of the city to elect council members from their own communities. Now they want to take the next step and have district maps determined by the citizens rather than the elected officials whose constituency is determined by these very maps.

Coleman’s civic history lesson is being translated into Khmer by Sereivuth Prak. It was here at the MAYE Center, where about 30 people were listening attendly to the speakers, that Equity for Cambodians first blossomed. The center serves as a self-healing space whose members include elders from the Cambodian community and over time their yoga and urban farming classes were eventually joined by civics classes.

This is what democracy looks like in Cambodia Town, a community originally formed largely by refugees fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime whose government carried out a genocide that killed millions. Many, especially the elders, are unfamiliar with a system where political power is acquired through organizing and petitioning the government.

City leadership often lauds Long Beach’s large population of people of Cambodian descent, the largest outside of Cambodia. But after over half a century of residence in Long Beach, this community of roughly 50,000 (according to the L.A. Times) would like to see a Cambodian-American elected to the city council for the first time.

First they have to consolidate themselves into one city council district. Cambodia Town is currently split between Districts 1, 2, 4, and 6, thereby diluting its power as a voting block.

But things are changing.

“I’m proud of my Cambodian community,” said Dr. Song “We’re on the frontline.”


The MAYE center partnered with Common Cause, a national good government group, to host the town hall-style event, which featured other community organizations, city officials, and business owners.

This follows successful lobbying on the part of these organizations  to strengthen the citizens redistricting charter amendment originally proposed by Mayor Robert Garcia.

Representatives from 3 of the 4 council districts that Cambodia Town falls into sent representatives to the forum. Only Councilmember Dee Andrew’s office was absent.

“This is a good government item that will inspire public confidence” said Councilmember Al Austin, who spoke at the event.

If passed, this charter amendment would change the way Long Beach determines its city council districts. Every ten years, following the release of the U.S. census, Long Beach (like jurisdictions on all levels of government) redraws the maps of its city council districts. Currently this is performed by the Council itself. Upon approval by the council, Long Beach residents will vote in November on whether to turn the power of the determining these districts from the council to a commission of citizens.

Dan Vicuña, the National Redistricting Manager for Common Cause, spoke at the event, providing background on the process of redistricting which is a central campaign for Common Cause.

“I use to call it the most important issue no one’s heard of,” says Dan Vicuna, national director for redistricting with the organization. “That’s changing.”

Manipulating the redistricting process in order to protect the interests and/or negatively affect a particular party or faction is known as gerrymandering, and it is currently being hotly contested across the country. Groups in Colorado, Missouri and Utah have successfully placed initiatives on the November ballot which would in some way remove lawmakers from the process of drawing district maps.  Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld an independent redistricting commission initiative which was being challenged by a group that was being funded by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Vicuna discussed the ways in which redistricting can be manipulated so as to protect the political interests already within power, thereby limiting the democratizing effect of citizen-led redistricting. While taking the responsibility of redistricting away from lawmakers is an obvious first step, Vicuna pointed out that “not at all citizens redistricting commissions are created equally.” Some ostensibly ‘independent’ redistricting commissions can actually be subservient to the officials they are meant to check.

Vicuna pointed to the City of Los Angeles as an example, laying out several elements that comprise its democratic effectiveness. The redistricting commission is advisory; their district map needs to be approved by the city council before taking effect. They are appointed by the councilmember themselves, presenting a conflict of interest. There are no eligibility requirements such as equal representation of party registration, a background that would establish knowledge of government, or prohibition of recently elected officials from joining the commission. Finally, there are no transparency measures, such as a requirement that map deliberation must be made public.

“All reports indicate that [sic] the city of Los Angeles’s commission did exactly what the council members [wanted them to]” concluded Vicuna.

The originally proposed Long Beach charter amendment possessed many of these same undemocratic features. It was advisory. There were no established qualifications for commissioners. There were no transparency measures. And finally, commissioners were to be appointed by the mayor with confirmation from the council.

After reading the first draft, organizers at the MAYE Center quickly realized that the redistricting commission was a trojan horse.

“It was so flawed” said Laura Som, Director of the MAYE Center. “It’s called Citizen Redistricting, but the power [was] still given to the Mayor.”

Equity for Cambodians, in collaboration with Common Cause, worked with the City to draft a new ordinance that addressed many of their concerns.

Instead of being mayor-appointed and council-confirmed, commissioners will be chosen through a ministerial process.

As the language stands now, the city clerk will be tasked with sending commissioner applications to all registered voters citywide who meet certain qualifications. Applicants will then be pared down to a pool of 20 to 30 people by a screening committee—comprised of the Ethics Commission, should one be established by passing of a concurrent but separate charter amendment—during a public meeting.

During that same meeting, the chair of the screening committee will randomly choose nine commissioners from the pool. Those nine will in turn choose the commission’s four remaining members from the same pool they were picked from, forming a commission of 13.

Language was also added that places restrictions on commissioners (as well as their immediate family) running for office or participating in political activities during and after their tenure. There is a requirement that the applicant pool equally represent each city council district, which was of pressing concern to the Cambodian community.  

Som points to a provision in the current official city criteria for redistricting which discourages “splits in neighborhoods, ethnic communities, and other groups having a clear identity,” which she believes the city is in clear violation of by breaking up Cambodia Town.

Some are still unhappy with the language of the redistricting commission amendment. Carlos and Juan Ovalle of People of Long Beach, a newly formed group, voiced their concerns at the meeting: the current draft gives appointment authority to the ethics commission which will be appointed by the mayor. How then can citizens guarantee that the same subversion that would result from direct appointment by the mayor wouldn’t happen by extension of a mayor-appointed ethics commission? They believe that support for the redistricting commission should be rescinded until this concern is addressed.

Dr. Coleman acknowledged that PoLB raised a “good point” but that judgement should be reserved until the design of the Ethics Commission, which is still being formulated, is made clear. Equity for Cambodians and Common Cause point to the qualifications for commissioners as a strong safeguard against political influence, even if they are selected by a mayor-appointed commission. Coleman and Norman assured the crowd that they will be diligent in monitoring the situation.

“We’ll be at the meeting on Tuesday to ensure that the independent status of this commission is superior because that’s what we’re all about” said Dr. Alex Norman with Equity for Cambodians.

That meeting is Today at 3 p.m. at the City Council chambers. It will be the last public hearing for the newly proposed Charter Amendments. Any member of the community that would like an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the amendments is encouraged to attend.

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