NC’s to the City: “We’ll Do Our Own Elections, Thank You”
- 15 Nov 2011
- Written by Jennifer Solis
NEIGHBORHOODS - The Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Elections Task Force voted unanimously Saturday afternoon to ask the City Council to “rescind the city ordinance authorizing the City Clerk to administer NC elections.”
Instead, the panel wants the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), “in partnership with neighborhood councils, to oversee elections,” and to proceed with them in 2012, as originally scheduled. The City Clerk, because of severe staff and funding cuts, had announced that the agency could not supervise NC elections until at least 2014.
The ETF resolution calls for selections to be set forth “in broad terms that will be conducted in accordance with the approved by-laws and election procedures of each neighborhood council,” including the existing Los Angeles City Charter Plan and Administrative Codes. “The procedures should encourage neighborhood councils to join together on a regular basis in order to land assistance to one another in outreach and the conduct of elections.”
The Task Force, made up of neighborhood council leaders from every part of the city, has met several times this year to develop a policy that would take back responsibility for this important function of local democracy, “to the grass roots, where it should have stayed in the first place,” according to one of the panelists. “We have just saved the city about a million dollars,” he added.
The action mirrored a similar resolution passed November 10th by the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils to return to “an election or selection process in 2012, or to opt-out (no election) and have an election in 2014.” Some NCs by-laws provide for four-year terms, which started in 2010.
Other resolutions considered Saturday by the ETF did not fare as well, including a set of “Principles of Political Action” that had been drafted, and seemed to have broad support. After several amendments to the six principles, which passed or failed by 6-5 or 7-4 votes, the package failed to pass 6-6. Some of those voting against the amended resolution stated that most of the provisions would have to be adopted anyhow by City Council action, if the overall program of self-determination were to be approved.
Among those provisions were (1) It is up to each neighborhood council to make its own decision as to whether to hold an election in 2012, or not; (2) If a neighborhood council wants to hold an election in 2012, it should be allowed to do so at its own expense; (3) Any neighborhood council opting to hold an election in 2012 will use the services of an Election Monitor. The “Monitor” was also designated as “an Independent Election Administrator or Neutral Third Party,” who would be trained and certified by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.”
DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim said that his agency has only $120,000 budgeted for citywide NC elections and questioned whether his recently reduced staff could handle that additional amount of training. One of the provisions in the six principles that was deleted by amendment would have allowed DONE to receive additional funding of $15,000 to administer handling any challenges to a local election.
The difference between the terms “election” and “selection” is key to allowing neighborhood councils to develop their own procedures. The current ordinance which concerns “elections” requires that the City Clerk administer the process. In 2010, this cost the city more than a million dollars. But by using the term “selection,” which is used in the original 1999 City Charter Plan for NCs, a less restrictive format could be used, such as a Town Hall, or electronic voting.
Because many neighborhood council by-laws assume that the City Clerk will supervise their elections, those by-laws might have to be amended to allow a “selection” process to be used. New template language is already being developed by DONE, which can be adopted by these NCs as a template for by-laws amendment.
This draft by-laws language would require that “At least four months prior to the [selection}, the governing board shall appoint an Election Committee consisting of stakeholders of this neighborhood council,” none of whom could be a current member of the governing board. No member of that election committee could run for a seat on the governing board during the election for which he or she serves.
The Election Committee may nominate an Election Monitor at least two months prior to the election, who would be chosen from a pool of trained and certified volunteers from outside the area of the local NC. This independent election administrator would be responsible for validating the credentials of candidates, and be in charge of handing out ballots to eligible voters, and counting those ballots immediately after the close of the time for voting.
The committee must prepare a written list of election procedures, which adhere to accepted principles of fairness and transparency, as well as procedures approved by the Los Angeles City Attorney and DONE. Any actions which violated any of the above could void that election. The agency could also cut off any funds to that neighborhood council which violated these terms.
The City Attorney has stated that the “selection” approach to choosing governing board members is covered by California’s Brown Act, and may not include a secret ballot. The “workaround” for this restriction would be for each voter to sign his or her ballot, or simply to conduct the voting by a show of hands at a “town hall” event, where candidates meet and answer questions from the voters.
The Election Task Force meeting adjourned after more than two hours of discussion, leaving several proposals to be postponed for consideration by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, which must conduct its own election of officers at its next, December 3rd meeting, in Hollywood.
Three of the proposals include the so-called “factual basis” stakeholders, a requirement for pre-registration, and providing voter documentation to prove eligibility to vote.
The original Charter Plan defined community stakeholders as those who live, work or own a business or property within the geographical boundaries of the neighborhood council. Five years later, the appointed Neighborhood Council Review Commission encouraged the City Council to expand voting and candidacy to anyone who “affirms a factual basis” of interest in that neighborhood.
This expansion of franchise led to many complaints, and in some cases, a takeover of governing boards. Persons were allowed to show up at an election with nothing more than a local receipt for a cup of coffee, according to the City Clerk’s report following the 2010 neighborhood council elections.
A proposal from the Westlake member of the Elections Task Force would ask the City Council to amend stakeholder qualification, so that the term “factual basis should imply an ongoing and significant interest in a community, and should demonstrate a nexus with the neighborhood in order to ensure that a voters’ or candidate’s stake in that community is not merely incidental, but ongoing and continuous.” In the 2010 round of NC elections, more than one-sixth of all those voting were “factual basis.” There are 45 neighborhood councils (out of the 95 total) that allow self-affirmation of voters.
Another proposal calls for the City to develop rules for the administration of election scheduled in 2012 that create a voter pre-registration process. Determining a person’s eligibility to vote in advance would simplify and standardize the election day procedures by allowing the Election Monitor by verifying that a stakeholder’s name appears on the pre-registration list. Voters whose names that do not appear on the pre-registration list could be provided with a provisional ballot for verification later, if such ballot would affect the outcome of the election.
The third proposed recommendation to the City Council would allow neighborhood councils to choose whether to require voters to provide documentation of their stakeholder status. Following the 2010 elections both the City Clerk and City Attorney’s office reported a greater number of complaints alleging voting ineligibility and irregularities from neighborhood council elections where no documentary evidence was required. The City Clerk was unable to process these challenges.
A town hall type of selection is more easily implemented for those neighborhood councils that have a single ballot style, but there are many NCs whose by-laws require many ballot styles, because of sub-districts, voter categories and other considerations. DONE estimates that there are as many as two dozen ballot formats now being used citywide. The City Attorney has stated that the more a selection process looks like an election, the more problematic it is, even if there is not a secret ballot.
There are also ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) considerations – a Federal requirement that all venues for any type of public meeting must be able to comfortably accommodate wheelchairs. Some neighborhood councils must provide multi-language ballots, as well as instructions in any language requested by a stakeholder.
If the Los Angeles City Council takes no action on the Election Task Force recommendations, the neighborhood council elections will be pushed back to 2014, and all NC Board terms will be automatically extended until then – a contingency that the majority of NCs are against.
(Jennifer Solis is a graduate student working toward her PhD in clinical psychology and an occasional contributor to CityWatch. She takes comments at JenniferSolis@Journalist.com) -cw
Tags: neighborhood councils, NCs, neighborhood council elections, elections, BongHwan Kim, Los Angeles, Neighborhood Council Elections Task Force, ETF, City Clerk, City Charter, Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, VANC, City Council, City Attorney
Vol 9 Issue 91
Pub: Nov 15, 2011