LA’s Neighborhood Councils … Who, How and Why? The Debate Continues

LOS ANGELES

GELFAND’S WORLD--A couple of weeks ago, I argued that the city is creating strife and turmoil which doesn't have to exist. In brief, the system the city has created for the election of neighborhood council boards stifles what should be a real reform movement. It ensures that each neighborhood council is in jeopardy of being overrun by people who have no right to be involved. In effect, it creates internal conflict. 

My argument in a nut shell is that voters in neighborhood council elections should be limited to the people who live in the neighborhood council's own district. The timeliness of this argument stems from the fact that Jay Handal, the director for this year's elections, suggested that I take it up here in CityWatch. Perhaps Jay brought the topic up because he knows I have been pushing it for the past decade. 

The debate has gotten some traction. One reason is that Tony Butka responded to my column with a column beginning with the title Gelfand's idea is crazy. Perhaps that headline was in reply to my own column's headline which started, Here's a crazy idea

I now choose to reply to Tony, but first I'd like to explain that neither Tony nor I are sniping at each other. The CityWatch editor wrote those titles. That's the way newspapers and CityWatch function. (It's true that the author can suggest a title to the editor, but the editor can change it or rewrite it entirely. It's at the editor's discretion.) So I'm sorry to disappoint you, but this isn't a shaming contest in which a couple of CityWatch contributors cross swords. It's a serious discussion about the way the City Council has done its best -- intentionally or unintentionally -- to undermine what could otherwise be a major contribution to city life. 

Let me summarize the argument in one short paragraph. I think that Tony Butka and I both believe that neighborhood councils should have independence and autonomy. They should be able to speak truth to power. The argument comes down to strategy -- how do we best achieve autonomy? My argument is that we should be able to prevent special interests from being able to mess with our elections. Otherwise, we have a formula for turning the once-autonomous neighborhood council into something that is little more than a special interest group. 

To begin with, I'd like to suggest that those of you who didn't read Tony's column the first time around take a look at it. I especially like the description of the early period of neighborhood council formation and development. Tony talks about how Greg Nelson, the city's manager at the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), encouraged us to figure out our own paths and create whatever organization would work best for us. Greg's famous comment was one size doesn't fit all. Tony's column then goes on to explain how subsequent rule under a new mayor started to undo a lot of the earlier progress. 

I worked on a different neighborhood council in a different part of town, but my memory of the times is pretty similar to Tony's. Mayor Villaraigosa did a lot of damage through his newly appointed Acting General Manager at DONE. One year, she cancelled just about half of all the neighborhood council elections in Los Angeles. 

In order to get to the crux of our differences, I'd like to quote a couple of paragraphs from Tony's article. The first paragraph refers to my point that we ought to define voting membership in neighborhood councils. My argument is that right now, it isn't really defined. Pretty much anyone from anywhere can vote in your local neighborhood council under the current rules. The easiest way to fix this is to limit voting to people who reside in your neighborhood council's district. Tony argues: 

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. 

I don't disagree with the sentiment, but I would point out that what neighborhood councils were supposed to be about has never come to fruition. It's hard to go back to what never was. In addition, it is possible to argue (as Tony does) that redefining the definition of Stakeholder doesn't solve every problem. I'll certainly agree to that, but if you read my previous column, you will see that I suggest that it will solve most of the electoral problems we've been facing over the past 14 years. There have been a lot of problems, arguments, and grievance letters that didn't have to be. 

I'll skip a lot of the intervening discussion, and cut to what I think are the defining paragraphs: 

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. 

OK Tony, I don't entirely disagree. I'm fine with going back to our founding days when the neighborhood councils were the wild wild West. But first let's consider what that really means. 

So allow me to tell you a story about a council that was the wild wild West 

My council was one of the first to be certified, back in December of 2001. We took seriously our responsibility of representing the interests of our district, and that brought us into a head-on clash with one of the weightier operators in California. We took on the Port of Los Angeles. 

We were opposed to unrestrained expansion of the port into residential areas and unrestrained growth in port activity. There were several reasons, but the main one was air pollution. The effect of all the diesel trucks and all the diesel powered ships was equivalent to having tens of thousands of diesel trucks running full time, right next door. Our council held public discussions and passed resolutions that represented the feelings of a substantial fraction of the people living in our district. 

In other words, our council was that wild wild west that Tony Butka talks about. We organized ourselves in our own way and to our own liking, and then we took on a giant opponent. 

And at a subsequent election, our council got taken over by a group who relied on the votes of outsiders to win a board majority. They didn't like the fact that we had passed resolutions that were intended to oppose port-related air pollution through the mechanism of port expansion. 

It was a strange election. It was frustrating to see people from outside the area and even outside L.A. County sign in to vote. But they did. And the responsible residents lost control of our neighborhood council's activities. 

Eventually the rightful representatives took back the council board, but it took another year, another election, and a lot of time and effort that could have been put to better use. 

But this goes to another point that Tony makes. He says, not unreasonably, Let each and every council go its own way. That sounds good in practice, but if the members of the council are not defined, how can this be meaningful? Residents of the Hollywood area neighborhood councils have strong feelings about commercial development. but if developers can bring in hundreds of outside voters to control those councils, then how can the concept of the neighborhood council have any meaning? 

Still, I don't think Tony Butka and I are all that separated in our thought. We both feel frustration over the way the City Council and city administrators have stifled what could and should be a robust political movement dedicated to governmental reform. May I suggest to Tony and to City Watch readers that the best way to create that robust spirit of rebellion is to have councils which are immune from being overrun by special interest groups. 

They aren't at this point. 

I think that everyone would agree that limiting neighborhood council stakeholder status to district residents has the virtue that we know who we are, and we don't have to spend half our time trying to make deals with those who represent ulterior interests. 

I will certainly concede that enlarging the stakeholder definition might bring in more people and create a perception of broader participation. But I would like the proponents of broader participation to admit that with each broadening, the political strength of the core constituency is weakened. It was true in 2004 -- my neighborhood council could not simultaneously represent the interests of Coastal San Pedro residents and the interests of the Port of Los Angeles. It had to be one or the other. 

There is one other point to bring up. The Port had existed for a long time before neighborhood councils came into being. The same holds true for the studios, the aerospace industry, the land developers, and so on. They already had political influence. One reason for the introduction of our neighborhood council system was to provide a counterweight to all that commercial power. It doesn't make sense to create a countervailing power -- the peoples' lobby -- and then to dilute it by giving the Port, the studios, and the land developers free rein to undermine our influence. 

Finally, I would like to respond to a member of our local neighborhood council governing board, who challenged my comments on the basis of the recent governing board election where I ran and lost. It's true that my slate played by the current rules, which allow you to recruit people effectively without regard to where they live. The answer is simple and obvious: We have to play by the rules as they exist, not as we'd like to see them. I would add that I might have lost by even more had we run under electoral rules limiting voting to residents (or just maybe, I might have done better). The point is not my own won-lost record, but that my neighborhood council has less believability to the public and to the city's elected officials in terms of who it actually represents.

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Short Takes--I flipped on the television set on Sunday and ran across the basketball finals at the Olympics. I immediately turned on my computer to find out how it had finished. Silly me. It turned out that this wasn't another of NBC's replays of USA gold medal events, but an actual live broadcast of a game that had not yet been completed. There has been a lot of discussion about NBC doing the Olympics the way ABC did Monday Night Football back in the old days. You know, the broadcast has to find a story line and then flog that story endlessly. Watching the biographical sketches was almost like watching tv commercials after a while. This is no way to appeal to an audience that has an ever-shorter attention span and the electronic gizmos to satisfy it.

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A few thoughtful pundits are explaining why Donald Trump's tax returns are of interest to the voters. The big question is whether Trump is beholden to foreign interests. The possibility of Russian money having a hold on Trump is hugely important if true, but other owed money is also important. Note that we're looking at close to two-thirds of a billion dollars in owed debt.

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What happened to parking ticket reform? We had a movement going for a while. We need to come back to that discussion. It will make more sense as part of a discussion of a broader initiative to reform local government. I intend to get to that discussion.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net

-cw

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