Sun, Sep

The Timidity of Neighborhood Council Bureaucracy


RETHINKING LA - On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy stood before a special joint session of Congress and challenged America to join him in his dramatic and ambitious vision, to send an American safely to the Moon and back, before the end of the decade.

That moment of clear vision and a specific deadline brought out the best in America.

Fifty years later, Neighborhood Council Valley Village celebrated the audacious power of a strong vision coupled with an absolute deadline by rejecting the Sierra Club’s request for a resolution calling on the City of Los Angeles to get off coal by the year 2020.

Treasurer Paul Hatfield, in his City Watch article, [link] explained that a resolution of support “on an issue so complex, with cost ramifications that could strain an already financially challenged municipality, was disrespectful of the deliberative process NCs should follow.“

That moment of caution and the commitment to deliberation is what has brought out the worst in Los Angeles.

Neighborhood Councils were created with a very simple purpose, “to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

They exist to engage the public in raising the bar, in challenging City Hall to get it done and to define “it” so that the professionals get a clear message of what the community expects.

It is not the responsibility of neighborhood councils to balance the books, to gas the trucks, to audit payroll, to clean the streets, or to buy equipment for city departments.

It’s to set a vision for greatness, including Public Safety, Public Works, Public Health, Public Education, and Public Service, on the Mayor and the City Council and to hold them accountable as they spend $6.9 billion of Public Money getting it done.

Albert Einstein said "Imagination is more important than knowledge." I believe that it’s the imagination of the public that should lay the foundation for the future of Los Angeles, even if we don’t possess the road-map or solutions in advance of the commitment to act.

Einstein also said that problems are created with one level of thinking while the solutions to those problems require a different level of thinking.

Of course, he never sat on a neighborhood council board and considered resolutions calling on the Mayor and City Council to support the members of the community as they pursued happiness.

Imagine if Steve Jobs had stood before a Community Council and offered up his vision of “A computer in every home!”

“Has this vision been vetted by committee? Has the applicant ever done this before? What are the economic ramifications of this vision and will it benefit the community? What are the qualifications of the visionary?”

Jobs didn’t ask for permission and he didn’t qualify the vision, in fact he revised it and refined it and raised the stakes when times got tough, bringing out the best in himself and in his team.

He worked with people who embraced the vision, reality be damned, and he held the vision aloft while one partner built the prototype and a third developed the business plan.

The Jobs vision was always in the forefront of the company and the people who joined the company understood and lived the vision. Not the spreadsheet, not the forecasts, not the schematics and not the inventory controls.

Since then, not only has Jobs seen his vision of a computer in every home come true, it’s safe to say that he played a significant role in the revolution that has put a computer in every pocket, on every desk, in every phone, and they’re all being used in ways that Jobs never imagined.

Such is the power of a bold vision.

Of course, Einstein is surely a genius and Jobs is probably up there, but what about the common folk. What can the hoi polloi hope to accomplish, simply by setting a goal and then embarking on a journey without funds and skills and backing and a track record of success?

25 years ago, the Rotary Club demonstrated the power of a simple vision when they took on Polio, historically the world’s greatest cause of disability. In spite of the fact that there is no known cure, they stepped up and declared their vision as “The complete eradication of Polio.”

As of this past year, polio cases have been reduced by 99% and Rotary has been joined by Bill and Melinda Gates in the struggle to focus all of the innovation and creativity they can muster on the last 1%, the hardest 1%.

As the Gates family makes the worldwide eradication of Polio the priority of the Gates Foundation, it’s important to remember that Microsoft was just four years old when the Rotary Club looked at the world, imagined a better place, and committed to a bold vision.  

Neighborhood councils are well within their place to stand up and issue declarations calling on City Hall to act professionally and to deliver on its obligations.

After all, without feedback, the Mayor and City Council can hardly be responsive to local needs.

Daniel H. Burnham, architect and urban planner, is quoted as saying “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized.”

Los Angeles is fast becoming a DIY city, one where the people of LA are more and more responsible for charting the course.

I challenge the neighborhood councils of Los Angeles to make big plans, to speak loudly and clearly, and to fulfill their destiny by embracing a vision for clean energy, a green economy, new technologies, and healthy communities.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at:           [email protected] .) –cw

Vol 9 Issue 44
Pub: June 3, 2011