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Why, Ten Years Later, I’m Still Bullish on LA’s Neighborhood Councils

NEIGHBORHOODS LA - Ten years ago, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners certified the first two neighborhood councils—Wilmington and Coastal San Pedro. Much pomp and circumstance surrounded the event. The mayor and city council met in Wilmington and presented proclamations and speechified on the subject of LA’s grand experiment in grassroots democracy. Now, most of the city is covered by neighborhood councils—95 at last count, with a few more to come. And councils are no longer referred to as an experiment. Love them or hate them, neighborhood councils are here to stay.

The course has been uneven, but progress steady, as neighborhood council board members, departmental staff, and neighborhood commissioners learned their roles and developed their relationships. I’m still here after a decade because I see neighborhood council volunteers doing better each year.

Early on, councils became the front line for planning and development issues. They recognized that maintaining the quality of life in their neighborhoods means more than picking up trash and painting over graffiti. Development that doesn’t fit the neighborhood can bring problems that affect communities in ways that sometimes can’t be fixed. When it can, the councils are there to find solutions.

In 2003, neighborhood councils began receiving annual funding from the city. Starting at $50,000 per council per year, economic realities have seen that amount reduced by nearly 20 percent. Yet councils continue to do as much or more with what they’re given as human capital makes up the difference.

Council volunteers learned to navigate the city’s bureaucracy, influencing decisions and bringing needed resources to their neighborhoods. A number of councils leveraged their minimal annual allocation to bring multimillion-dollar projects to their communities. They partnered with nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and other governmental entities to improve public safety, enhance cultural experiences, educate their stakeholders about government, and recruit individuals to do what they do—make a difference every day in the life of our city.

Three years ago, neighborhood councils reached a political tipping point when confronted with an 80 percent cut to their annual funding. Within hours of the announcement of the suggested reduction, emails were flying fast and furious to and from neighborhood council leaders all over the city. Within days, community activists jammed the city council chamber to defend neighborhood councils and defeat the proposal to decimate funding.

As staff at the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment has declined by about 75 percent, neighborhood councils have been forced to take on more operational responsibility. To a good extent, DONE must now rely on NC volunteers for things like organizing the Congress of Neighborhood Councils and working with councils that are having problems. The bylaws and elections task forces and peer mentor working group exemplify a new “bottom-up” strategy for reforming and improving the neighborhood council system.

The evolution of regional alliances—neighborhood councils banding together to support each other—also points to a new “self-help” dynamic. It is the realization that we, the people, know our communities and what they need and that by helping each other, we help ourselves.

The immediate challenges for councils include what to do about elections in the coming year, determining what actions to take regarding the motions introduced by Councilman Paul Krekorian that touch on training, funding, regional governance, and grievances, and how the city’s continuing financial difficulties will impact the neighborhood council system. There are also the ongoing and never-ending issues of our neighborhoods.

Over the last decade, I’ve met and worked with a few hundred neighborhood council volunteers. They are passionate, devoted, sometimes a little bit crazy, and always well intended. They mean to do good for their communities. And they have.

I look forward to neighborhood councils’ next decade as we continue to get angry, get educated, and, most of all, get involved.

(Doug Epperhart is a publisher, a Board of Neighborhood Commissioners Commissioner, a member of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council and is a contributor to CityWatch. He can be reached at: . ) -cw

Tags: neighborhood councils, Los Angeles neighborhood councils, Wilmington Neighborhood Council, Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, NCs, Paul Krekorian, DONE, anniversary

Vol 9 Issue 98
Pub: Dec 9, 2011