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In Search of Solutions for LA’s Troubled Neighborhood Council Election Process


ANALYSIS - The City Clerk recently completed a series of meetings across the City to discuss alternative ways to hold neighborhood council elections, including the option of having someone else run them.  This comes on the heels of the Mayor’s recommendation in the 2011-12 Budget to push back the long-planned 2012 neighborhood elections to 2014 and to extend the terms of those board members who are up for re-election (whether they planned to run again or not).

How did this happen?  Many folks were unaware that such an action had taken place as part of the budget, which was adopted by the City Council in late May.  The Clerk, which has seen a more than 30% cut in staffing budget from two years ago, felt that they could not handle the challenge of supervising neighborhood council elections on top of their regular work load.  No assurances were provided, however, that the same thing won’t happen again in 2013.

Why should anyone care?  Elections are what distinguish neighborhood councils from every other civic group that claims to speak for an area.  If the majority of board members have not been subject to an election in over four years (as will be the case for many groups starting next year) or appointed to fill a vacancy for a burned out individual, then the entire group loses much of its grassroots credibility.  This will reduce their influence ultimately.

Elections are the primary way in which most neighborhood councils conduct outreach, with boards required to hold informative sessions about their groups and significant efforts made to recruit new members.  There is nothing preventing neighborhood councils from doing this as part of their normal course of business, of course, but it’s only human nature that if you provide people with the option of going about things as they are now, that they will go that route.

The most unfortunate thing about the continued troubles with neighborhood council elections is that the Clerk ever had to take them over.  This idea was hatched after Councilwoman Hahn held a hearing of her Education & Neighborhoods Committee during which a former Interim General Manager of DONE made the ridiculous claim that a third of their staff time was spent on elections.  Hahn then decided to take away elections from DONE to help them to focus.

This didn’t work out, of course.  As anyone who was ever involved with elections under the old system knows, DONE staff did little of the actual legwork, though their expertise and help were certainly useful.  The Clerk initially agreed to take over the role of running the elections, reasoning that they could use the staff that they were receiving from DONE as part of the deal to work on City elections during odd years.  This seemed to work out for a year or two.

Neighborhood councils who had annual elections, meanwhile, were forced to switch to two or four year terms with staggering only possible with four year ones.  This ran against the general idea that neighborhood councils were more grassroots than the City Council and meant to receive frequent public feedback.  With no formal powers other than a small amount of funding to distribute, board members’ only power is based on their collective credibility.

DONE did not benefit from this deal, upon further reflection, either.  Their staffing level has been cut by more than half (from over 40 to just 20) with fewer responsibilities to take care of.  They are busy trying to outsource responsibility for overseeing NC funding and, by their own admission, don’t have the staffing to attend meetings of most neighborhood councils.  

So where does this leave us?  While the current circumstances are unfortunate, it’s clearly no good to try to reverse course at this point.  Similar to the issue of funding, there are some very intriguing possibilities available.  The League of Women Voters for a while used to help run neighborhood council elections and, now that the Clerk has formalized them and documented the process, might be willing to take on this role again for a fraction of the City’s costs.

The concept of the Independent Election Administrator, which fell out of popularity after a few cases of alleged bias, was a strong one that should also be reconsidered.  Perhaps with better candidates and training fewer problems would arise with these individuals, who were members of the community who oversaw every aspect of neighborhood council elections for years for a flat hourly fee.  Many groups, such as mine, have positive memories of the IEAs.

The Clerk throws out a lot of other possible ideas, ranging from Town Hall Elections to Phone and Internet Voting to all Vote-By-Mail Elections.  These ideas all have merit and should be reviewed.  There are many voter advocacy organizations active in Los Angeles and they should be invited to roll up their sleeves and help run these elections, using our grassroots democracy as their laboratory.  

Whatever solution is picked should be a permanent one.

For a copy of the Clerk’s PowerPoint presentation on options for NC elections go to, click here.

The Clerk’s recently released a follow-up report with further background information is here.

(Erik Sanjurjo is the Vice President of the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council.
He also worked for the Los Angeles City Council for over a decade on policy issues and is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)

Tags: Neighborhood Council Elections, Los Angeles, City Clerk, League of Women Voters, DONE, Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, Janice Hahn, Education and Neighborhoods Committee, IEAs, Independent Election Administrators, Town Hall, Vote by Mail

Vol 9 Issue 87
Pub: Nov 1, 2011

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