Neighborhood Council Elections Once Again at Risk
- 08 Nov 2011
- Written by Bob Gelfand
NEIGHBORHOODS LA - You would think that the Los Angeles City Council hates the idea of elections, considering how they have been treating the neighborhood council system. Having cancelled our elections in the past, the City Council, it is rumored, is preparing to do so once again.
The neighborhood councils were created by the Charter reform of 1999 in an attempt to form what is essentially a peoples' lobby, a venue which would allow the rest of us to have some say, however small, in the management of this city. In order to make this happen, thousands of us organized local groups which became the neighborhood councils.
More thousands of us have served on the governing boards of these councils. These boards are the administrators of the local councils. They are the people who convene the monthly meetings, hear comments from the public, and communicate findings to city government.
An essential element of this system is that the people who sit on governing boards need to be representative of their communities. For this reason, most neighborhood councils were originally designed to have local elections for governing board members.
In the early years of the system, most of us ran our own elections. After a few years, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment codified election procedures and introduced the idea of the Independent Election Administrator (IEA), who provided supervision over the essential functions of handing out ballots and counting them accurately.
It was not a perfect system, since the incumbent board members who held the purse strings could in theory manipulate the pre-election process by failing to do adequate outreach to the public, thereby enjoying the advantage that comes with incumbency. Since there has never been any citywide standard for what adequate outreach is supposed to be, it was not uncommon for the losers to complain about the election process.
For the most part, these complaints should have been ignored. Failure to get out the vote for your own preferred candidates should not be something that the rest of us should be held responsible for. Many groups of people did organize and succeeded in electing their preferred candidates, much as political parties do in other elections.
Still, the City Council apparently tired of hearing these complaints, and at the instigation of the Neighborhood Council Review Commission (NCRC), went with a fairly radical plan to take elections out of our hands and turn them over to the City Clerk.
This is not necessarily a bad idea if you do it right. After all, the City Clerk runs municipal elections already, and could be expected to understand the nuts and bolts of handing out ballots and counting them.
The problem is that this was a square peg in a round hole from the very start. The first problem involved the unwillingness of the City Clerk to manage elections more often than every two years. Many neighborhood councils were designed around an annual election. This was an essential element of outreach to the community, as it involved advertising the existence of the council and bringing people to a polling place or a town hall forum where they would hear from candidates and get a chance to vote.
The other problem with using the City Clerk for neighborhood council elections was that the City Council badly under-funded the program. The original proposal, going back to 2008, was that the city would fund its agencies to do publicity and mailings so that the majority of Angelenos would be told about upcoming elections. When the city ran into financial difficulties, it took back all the money that would have been used for this outreach, leaving the Clerk to run a barebones election -- no mailings, no outreach, just a big nothing.
Some neighborhood councils recognized the problem and filled the vacuum by spending their own time and money on outreach. In effect, elections were run the way they had previously run, except that the Clerk's office (at huge cost to the city) ran the polls and counted the votes. Other neighborhood councils, having been told in essence to butt out, simply left the field to the City Clerk and then watched as voter turnout dropped to double digits.
Looking back, we can chart a history of minor problems being "fixed" by the City Council and by DONE so as to make them worse. Many of us didn't actually need an IEA to run our elections, as we already had well respected local leaders presiding, but we adapted. The replacement of our local elections with City Clerk run elections has been a lot worse, and it threatens our democratic process significantly.
Here's why. The city is broke, and the money that would have funded the City Clerk's office to run another election in 2012 is not available. Rather than do the logical thing, which would be to scrap the City Clerk system of neighborhood council elections and return to an adequate, if imperfect system, the City Council has been talking about canceling all our elections in 2012. Since the Clerk will be busy running municipal elections in 2013, there would be no neighborhood council elections until 2014.
Curiously, there may be a way out of this problem. It turns on a technicality in the language of the City Charter that established the neighborhood council system. The Charter allows neighborhood councils to elect or select their board members. Notice that word "select."
The City Council action that turned elections over to the City Clerk did not explicitly mention "selections," only "elections." With the concurrence of the City Attorney, legally minded neighborhood council participants are now trying to use this seeming triviality to find our way around the problem that city government has created.
Basically, any neighborhood council that is willing to change its bylaws so as to refer to "selection" of board members will be able to carry on its own process of board member selection, independent of the City Clerk. There are some limits, which hinge on the legal difference between an election and a selection. For one thing, the selection process cannot be carried out by secret ballot, as that would turn it into a true election, and therefore subject to the City Council edict on neighborhood council elections.
Still, those of us who wish to take back our own destiny can hold a town hall type of meeting where candidates and voters get to meet and mix, and we can choose our new leaders as long as we sign our ballots.
As part of this ongoing process, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) has been sponsoring an Election Task Force. The ETF met on Saturday, November 5, and will meet again on Saturday, November 12.
Here is what the ETF said on November 5: We oppose any action by the City Council that would cancel the 2012 elections. We understand that the city won't fund the City Clerk to run the 2012 elections, but there is no reason that the City Clerk couldn't agree to let us run our own elections.
In addition, we oppose any action by the City Council that would extend the terms of current board members to 2014 automatically. This might be a useful action if the only kind of board selections were those administered by the City Clerk as elections. But many of us are choosing to go the route of independent selection, and an automatic term extension would seriously interfere with this process.
The ETF also discussed the issue of neighborhood councils that won't wish to try to do board selections in 2012. We have created an ad hoc group to discuss other possible solutions to their problems. We will take those issues up next Saturday.
(Bob Gelfand is the vice chair of the LANCC and chairs the Election Task Force. He is a CityWatch contributor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org) -cw
Tags: Neighborhood Councils, Neighborhood Council Elections, Elections, Selections, City Charter, Town Halls, City Council, City Clerk, Election Task Force, NC Election Task Force, LANCC
Vol 9 Issue 89
Pub: Nov 8, 2011