15 CANDLES--Fifteen years ago, more or less, the first neighborhood councils in Los Angeles opened for business. I was there at the beginning as chair of the group that organized the second certified council, Coastal San Pedro. Our election in February 2002 was the first ever held.
It’s not that we didn’t know what we were doing. Let’s just say there was a lot of improvising. We were lucky in that we had a lot of experienced people who helped draft our bylaws and knew how to run meetings.
Guidance from the fledgling Department of Neighborhood Empowerment amounted to “don’t violate the Brown Act or get sued.” Back then, staff was consumed with getting as many neighborhood councils certified as fast as possible. They didn’t worry about much else. The rules, regulations, and mandatory training were yet to come.
Mayor Jim Hahn and his sister, Councilmember Janice Hahn, were enthusiastic supporters of the councils. Subsequent administrations not so much. It seems now that many city hall politicos and bureaucrats view councils as a chronic infection of the body politic. They can’t cure it, so they try to manage it.
For the first half-dozen or so years, neighborhood councils were often referred to as an “experiment” in grassroots democracy. That was mostly wishful thinking on the part of those selfsame politicians who didn’t want to be bothered. When councils were threatened with a drastic reduction in funding, they rose up and acted to protect their budgets. Similarly, a proposal to eliminate the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment met with a resoundingly negative reaction.
Ironically, it was when neighborhood council board members started acting more like the politicians they professed to detest that references to an “experiment” ended. For good or ill, the neighborhood council system -- Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, and 90-plus neighborhood councils -- is here to stay.
The story of neighborhood councils in Los Angeles is the story of the people who first thought of bringing councils here, those who wrote the charter and established the law governing councils, staff who helped -- or not -- the volunteers who created and ran the councils, and the volunteers themselves.
Over the next few months, CityWatch will be telling the story of the last 15 years. The people who brought us here will be talking about their experiences building this system. If there’s someone you think played a key role in the story of LA’s neighborhood councils or if you have ideas about what we should include in our anniversary coverage, please let us know.
(Doug Epperhart is a publisher, a long-time neighborhood council activist and former Board of Neighborhood Commissioners commissioner. He is a contributor to CityWatch and can be reached at: Epperhart@cox.net) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.