GELFAND’S WORLD--For sixteen years, Los Angeles officials have been telling us that the system of neighborhood councils exists to improve citizen participation in government. In fact, the City Charter leads off its section nine with the following purpose statement:
To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs, a citywide system of neighborhood councils, and a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is created. Neighborhood councils shall include representatives of the many diverse interests in communities and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood.
That seems pretty self-explanatory. In my home-council, we've been encouraging participation by our neighbors since February 2002, back when we held the first neighborhood council board meeting in the city. Over the ensuing years, public officials and LAPD Senior Lead Officers have added their own contributions. In fact, our public treats the chance to ask questions of the LAPD and of civic officials (or their representatives) as an important part of the meeting. In reality, this is their part of the meeting, because it provides members of the public a chance to engage with officials who have the power and authority to change things. Even when the visitor is an appointed representative (usually a staffer) rather than the City Councilman, it is a chance to provide feedback to the elected official.
That's why I was so surprised when an old friend told me the following story. He was at his neighborhood council meeting (it's the council immediately adjacent to my home council) and he got up to ask the City Councilman's representative a question. This was nothing new actually -- it happens routinely at most neighborhood councils around the city. But this time, he was told that he could not ask his question. The rules had changed.
He explained to me that he was told the following -- that only members of the elected board could ask questions of the City Councilman's representative during the public part of the meeting. If he wanted to have a private conversation with the rep away from the meeting, he was welcome to try.
It's apparently the new rule. If this is an accurate description of a new policy, it certainly represents a terrible way of doing business.
I called the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), the city agency that oversees neighborhood councils. The DONE representative I spoke with explained the situation my friend had experienced. The Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council had a rather busy agenda that evening, so to save time, the board decided to abolish the public's right to ask questions of the visiting dignitaries. Thus my friend Bill was forbidden to ask Councilman Joe Buscaino's representative Ryan Ferguson a question in public.
That this is a bad policy is easy enough to see. An essential element of public participation is providing members of the public a chance to cross swords with elected officials. This is what we have seen in town halls held by congressmen over the past couple of months. The reception that members of congress had at their town halls may be the reason that we still have the Affordable Care Act.
The public Q/A session is the public's opportunity to communicate not only with the elected official, but also with each other. This is particularly important when the inquiry concerns a City Councilman's performance in office, analogous to the way it concerns a congressman's voting record. What is the councilman going to do about traffic or homelessness or home burglaries? Will he support the proposed sales tax increase? What does he think about the current trend to treat home burglaries as misdemeanors?
It's not obvious that elected board members will think of the same set of questions as you or I would, and it's rather unlikely that board members will press their questions to the same extent that we might. In fact, there is a reasonable argument to be made that neighborhood council governing board members have different incentives than the public when it comes to discussions with elected officials. The board members are trying to maintain a cordial relationship with the elected official, something which is not conducive to aggressive public questioning over matters of performance or ethics or legislation
The question of purpose
In considering the radically different approaches taken by my home council (Coastal San Pedro) and the council in question (Central San Pedro), it's appropriate to ask what the whole system is supposed to be about. Which way is more likely to result in improved government as described in the City Charter's quaint wording? My rather partisan point of view is that shutting the public out of the process is less than optimal. Actually, it's the way to communicate to the public that they are second class participants. What's so outrageous is that the neighborhood council is the organization that is supposed to be the closest to the public in all of city government. How hard is it to point out that citizen participation means exactly what it says?
But this point having been made, it is also necessary to admit that the night's agenda (see the link above) was in fact pretty busy. How do you rationalize the need to get through a long agenda with the public's right to participate in questioning of officials?
I think that the honest answer is that for some agendas and some neighborhood councils, it's not always possible. It's necessary to make a choice.
In order to make a choice rationally, it's necessary to consider the opposing needs.
My view is that an essential function of the neighborhood council is giving the public the maximum opportunity to make its own views known. It's not unreasonable to dedicate a significant fraction of council meetings mainly to public participation. For example, my council held a couple of meetings dedicated to discussion of the homelessness problem, leading off with speeches by homeless advocates and devoting the bulk of each meeting to public comments.
In addition, it's necessary to devote a sufficient amount of time for public participation at every other council meeting. Hearing from the public is a prime function of the neighborhood councils, and all of them should live up to this expectation.
But what about all the other agenda items -- the items that require such a large amount of time? There are three possible answers to this question. The first is simple: Just don't put so much on your agenda. A lot of routine matters are sufficiently handled every two months, or even every three months.
Another method is to learn how to use time management. In practice, this involves putting a time limit on each agenda item in advance. The board can extend the length of any item, knowing full well that this adds to the length of the meeting. It is between the board and the public as to whether this is acceptable. But absent an affirmative board vote to extend the length of any given item, it is over when it has used up its allotted time.
I understand that most boards would feel strange about having an item die without taking a vote, but there again, there are methods for dealing with the situation. In brief, go directly to the vote at the end of allotted time, or put further consideration of the matter over until the next meeting, or quickly pass a motion to extend the item by five minutes.
It's possible to handle your time effectively such that the rights of the public to participate are not hindered. That this requires of the presiding officer a certain skill set is not in question, and training in these matters is one of those obligations that should have been taken up by DONE years ago but never was.
I should also like to add that lengthened board agendas are a symptom of a long term trend in neighborhood councils, the idea that every question should be sent to a committee, and there should be a committee for every question. It sounds reasonable at the superficial level, but a deeper look leads to some concerns. For one thing, committee work is usually carried out by a smaller number of participants, and committee meetings often happen at times and places that are difficult for many members of the public to attend. The result is that those few people who are most invested in any particular subject are the ones who become the committee members. The result is, often enough, a skewed recommendation from the committee to the board. Now add in a board meeting which limits public participation (one comment not to exceed two minutes is certainly to be limited) and the recipe is for an overall skewed result.
It is of course possible for a committee to be made up almost entirely of people with a specific interest and still see a fair result. This happens when, for example, the downtown business owners can ask for certain changes that would benefit the community as a whole without damaging any other part of the community.
But the primary functioning of a neighborhood council still has to include a maximum of public participation, and this remains the case whenever the choice is between hearing public comment and hearing the reports of committees. Or to be specific, Bill should have been allowed to ask Ryan his question.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)