EASTSIDER-Bob Gelfand’s recent CityWatch article, “Here’s a Crazy Idea: What if Voters in Neighborhood Council Elections had to Live in the NC’s boundaries”, raises an important idea. He wants to go back to having NC voters more closely model the LA City Council elections, using the more nuanced phrase “live or work” as compared to the municipal election standard that uses “be a resident of” as the requirement for official elections (unless, of course, you’re a carpetbaggin’ elected official like our Mr. Alarcon.)
This is not a new idea, but I believe that the real problem isn’t redefining who can vote in NC elections. The real problem is going back to what Neighborhood Councils were supposed to be about before City Hall slowly and deliberately set out to neuter them. So let me make the case.
The Good Old Days
I am one of not too many people who remember, way back in the day, the initial organizing round that involved setting Neighborhood Council boundaries, certifying them and holding the first set of elections.
My experiences were both good and bad. I only got involved because I lived at the time in a loft at The Brewery art complex off of North Main Street. There was a question as to whether the artist colony was going to become a part of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council or was going to become a part of a new Arts District that was going to wind up in the Downtown Neighborhood Council. This would have combined the downtown arts folks and the Brewery, based on a strong community of interest and the fact that both groups had periodic Arts Festivals to show off their work.
So I joined a small group that talked to the Downtown NC organizing committee, and it appeared that all was well and they would take us into their Council. Then along came the ugly reality of LA City politics. Nick Pacheco was the councilmember for CD 14 at the time. Unbeknownst to us, he had different ideas.
When our group went to the hearing to decide which Neighborhood Council District we would join, we got sandbagged by a large group of Latino youth that we later discovered were part of a non-profit organization Pacheco used as a flying squad to effectuate his will. Outside of the actual hearing room, we were informed that if we went in and argued to be part of the Downtown NC instead of the Lincoln Heights NC, all these young people would go in and trash us as a bunch of white racist elitists who were afraid of being lumped in with a bunch of Latinos. We were also informed that there was a deal between Pacheco (CD14) and Ed Reyes (CD1) to do things this way -- and we better get with the program or else.
Most of our group freaked out, folded and were never heard from again regarding Neighborhood Councils, City politics, or even voting in any elections at all. You will not be surprised that the Brewery Art complex became a part of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council. Personally, I got angry. That’s how I got sucked into LA City politics and the Neighborhood Council system.
I became a part of the Downtown NC organizing group and worked as a poll worker on their election. It was exciting -- hundreds and hundreds of people voted, from the affluent living on the hill in condo’s to the SRO’s and the homeless. I mean, busloads of folks organized by the SROs came to vote. It was exhilarating -- a great turnout with very little quibbling about who was eligible to vote. For those who don’t know, SRO stands for Single Room Only entities.
The Neighborhood Council system, during those first heady days under Greg Nelson, were like the Wild, Wild West. DONE had a decent staff, BONC was rarely even heard from, and Greg’s guiding principle was that every NC should be able to go its own way in this great experiment -- from Bylaws to Meetings to how they wanted to organize themselves. Such was the essence of the Charter -- “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs...”
It was even fun.
When I read another CityWatch article recently, “South LA’s Gentrifying Skyscraper,” I took particular note of author Damien Goodmon’s comment that, “Anyone looking for a project that crystallizes the City of Los Angeles’ ‘Wild Wild West development process,’ needn’t look any further than the Cumulus skyscraper at Jefferson/La Cienega.” It got me to thinking about inequality and who’s doing what to whom, City Hall style.
I guess it’s okay to have a Wild Wild West show if you are elected officials -- but don’t you dare if you’re the governed who are only trying to follow the Charter’s mandate to hold our politicians’ feet to the fire. No sir.
Back when Neighborhood Councils were new, even before LANCC was born and CityWatch grew into the only real local news outlet in Los Angeles, citizens were actually encouraged to kick the tires and test drive the new car. Heck, City Hall even gave each Neighborhood Council $50,000 per year -- an effort to divide them into factions fighting over that relatively small amount of money. All too often it worked.
There was a whole legacy left behind from those days -- working papers, records, documents, all kinds of things to demonstrate how the Neighborhood Council experiment evolved. Greg Nelson even had a website for DONE which had useful stuff on it, available at the click of a mouse. All of this, of course, was only until our pal Tony Villaraigosa became mayor. After that, they got rid of Greg and all the records disappeared. Quelle surprise.
The Three Harbingers of Doom
Back to the NC elections. There are three elements of City Government that have turned NC elections upside down and created an election system that is worse than that of most third world countries. First, of course, there is the LA City Council. Guess who redefined what a stakeholder is? You got it – the council. If you think what they did was an accident, think again. It’s called “how to sow dissension 101.” And it’s obviously been working. The City Council governs by a questionable 15-0 voting system while playing Neighborhood Councils off against DONE and BONC.
The second leg of governmental meddling is the LA City Clerk’s Election Division. They are absolutely incapable of conducting the type of elections that include the City Council’s revised stakeholder definitions. Our elections represent everything they abhor -- uncertainty, mushy language, flaky rules, and worst of all, some commie vision of glorifying outreach. My god. They never wanted to run our elections in the first place. Well, they shouldn’t have had to do so and they’ve made a predictable mess of it. But, of course, they did want the money.
It should be no surprise that our online voting experiment was a disaster. Guess who was in charge? I mean, you had to provide more personal information and ID info than it takes to visit a friend in prison. The election system is broken; and I say it’s a deliberate act of suppression by the politicians. I know, it may seem a stretch to assume that City Hall is that smart. But remember, they get to hire people to do their bidding.
And the third harbinger is, surprise, surprise, our current LA City Attorney, a transient in the post until he can run for Mayor or some other political office. His office doesn’t put anything in writing to Neighborhood Councils because it’s all “attorney client privilege” -- verbal you-know-what that will prevent them from being tagged for their nutso advice. Now they run things for the City Council by controlling what’s left of BONC and using that forum to promulgate any number of paralyzing top down rules -- rules that are the equivalent of putting a straitjacket on the Neighborhood Councils’ ability to actually do anything.
Here’s my proof. Before Mike Feuer became our City Attorney, prior City Attorneys like James Hahn, Rocky Delgadillo, and Nuch Trutanich provided the Neighborhood Councils with actual written legal opinions. OMG. These opinions had real “we stand by our advice” titles like, “Legal Issues Regarding Neighborhood Councils”, and “The Ability of Neighborhood Councils to Further Define the Charter Terms of Lives, Works, or Owns Property, to Identify Its Stakeholders.” See, back then they were working for us, or at least not against us.
Enter Villaraigosa, exit Greg Nelson, and goodbye to the website with all of its priceless information about Neighborhood Councils, including these legal opinions.
Coincidence? I think not. Rather, it represents the bureaucratic takeover of a democratic system.
What’s the Real Stakeholder Issue?
With all due respect to Mr. Gelfand, I don’t think changing the definition of a stakeholder is going to make any difference in the usefulness of Neighborhood Councils. A straitjacket is a straitjacket. I would urge that we go back to the beginnings of our NC system. Let each and every Council go its own way. This includes governance, bylaws and meetings -- anything that furthers their ability to act as a check and balance on our serious train wreck of LA City Council governance.
I say let’s go back to when the Neighborhood Councils, not the City Council, represented the Wild Wild West and did what they could to meet their Charter mandated goal -- “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs...”
As for elections, let self-affirmation roll. Who cares? If a special interest group can organize enough votes to control a Neighborhood Council, so be it. Good for them. It makes the rest of us get off the dime and go organize. Heck, any way you slice it, doing elections by vote beats the heck out of elections by developers’ dollars. City Hall-style.
Remember, the definition of stakeholder only became a big deal when Jose Huizar got his panties in a twist because the marijuana dispensaries in Eagle Rock decided to take over the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council. This was viewed as the equivalent of a Mexican drug cartel takeover by our sensitive Councilmember, since he views the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council as his personal fiefdom.
So let’s stop griping and demand an honest, simple and transparent election process for Neighborhood Councils. One controlled by them, and not the City Clerk, the City Attorney, or City Hall.
And let’s go find those files.
(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.