Theoretically, divisions of power in Los Angeles County are determined by a simple number: population. Every ten years, the Census counts our heads, and someone clumps them into equally sized voting districts.
For the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the clumping is done by the supervisors themselves. And there's nothing simple about that.
If the supervisors can't decide how to sort about 10 million of us into five equal portions, someone else will do the clumping. In this case, redistricting would be the responsibility of the three officials who are elected countywide: the sheriff, the district attorney, and the county assessor.
Whoever decides - five supervisors or an official troika - their choice will determine the shape of power - and politics - in Los Angeles County for at least a decade. If they fail to slice power into portions that satisfy ethnic grievances and contending political ambitions, their choice could be upended by a legal challenge.
In 1991, because of a long history of ethnic gerrymandering, the Board of Supervisors was compelled to accept a federal consent decree that redrew boundaries to create the majority Latino district that promptly elected Supervisor Gloria Molina.
Twenty years later, Molina hopes to redraw power lines in the county again, by creating a second majority Latino district to reflect the county's growing Latino population, up from 45 percent in 2000 to an estimated 48 percent today.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas favors a similar plan to create another majority Latino district.
But the board was handed a much different plan. The redistricting scheme recommended by the board's boundary advisory committee - with some modifications offered by Supervisor Don Knabe - leaves existing districts essentially unchanged. If the boundary committee map is adopted, supervisors would stay within their comfortable limits and Knabe could run again in a familiar district before he's term limited in 2016.
At the board's August 9 meeting, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas proposed an alternative map that would create a Latino majority in Knabe's 4th District by shifting the district's boundaries north and east into the San Gabriel Valley. The new boundaries would increase the 4th District's Latino population to 52 percent and force Knabe to run in a district specifically created to elect a Latino candidate.
By the end of the meeting - with Molina and Ridley-Thomas loudly critical of their boundary committee - the supervisors decided not to decide. Instead, they set a new hearing on September 6 to consider Knabe's revised map, Ridley-Thomas' alternative map, and any other map board members might propose.
As was universally expected, Molina has her own map, which she submitted on Tuesday. If her plan gets four votes, Molina - who is termed out in 2014 - will cap her career in county government by giving Latino political ambitions a potent new office. But unlike Ridley-Thomas' plan, Molina's alternative would carve out a second majority Latino district without putting Knabe's reelection at risk.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Knabe would cede Latino neighborhoods in the southeast and eastern parts of his district to Molina, who would represent a new San Gabriel Valley-centered district. Knabe would gain the northern coastal area of the county from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's district. Yaroslavsky's district would become heavily Latino and stretch from the eastern San Fernando Valley through downtown to the neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River.
The big losers in Molina's scheme would be Yaroslavsky, whose district gets sliced up to create a Latino majority, and San Fernando Valley residents, whose voting strength would be further diluted.
Molina's plan addresses two political problems - a second majority Latino district and Knabe's incumbency - by creating two new ones - compelling all five supervisors to represent substantially different districts and alienating San Fernando Valley voters.
To get her plan approved, Molina needs Yaroslavsky and Knabe to accept her grand design for the redistribution of power in Los Angeles County. Molina has improved her chances of aligning Knabe, but she may have lost Yaroslavsky. Although he's termed out of office in 2014 (like Molina), Yaroslavsky may be reluctant to anger his Valley constituency if he plans to run for mayor in 2013.
And his reluctance may lead to yet another map.
[Update at 3:00 p.m. 08.19.2011: Yaroslavsky makes his reluctance official here.]
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
The image on this page is adapted from materials that are in the public domain.