NEIGHBORHOODS LA-There seems to have been a fair amount of soul searching of late regarding the Neighborhood Council System. This is a good thing! In order to get to the next level - the next ten years - we need to rectify weaknesses and develop what I like to call … a “grand vision”.
Bob Gelfand, my distinguished colleague here at CityWatch, has been railing about the rules and regulations governing NC’s. He complains that we are subjected to more rules and regulations than most of the other agencies including the City Council. He blames both the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) and EmpowerLA (sometimes referred to as DONE). Believe it or not - even though he calls me his “nemesis” - I agree with him to a certain extent.
As an example, there is the “Posting Rule,” where NC’s are required to post each agenda and meeting particulars in five or more locations. It is a waste of time for many NC’s – and neighborhood dependent. Some are walking neighborhoods where notices are easily read by pedestrians. Others are car dependent and their stakeholders have probably never read a posted agenda.
I understood the NC Plan Review Committee settled the issue by concluding one posted agenda/notice twenty-four hours before the meeting, as well other posts on the web, email blast etc, was sufficient.
Apparently not, because the subject occupied most of the frustrating almost-three-hour BONC meeting held November 5th. Why ask for the NC opinions in the survey, and call for all the NC Boards to approve- if you aren’t going to listen to them?
A simple answer is to allow each NC to post one mandatory notice in a place with 24 hour visibility and, depending on their neighborhood, post as many additional agendas/notices as they want.
Why do 95 Neighborhood Councils have to adhere to a policy that is good for some but not for others? So, Bob write it down…I agree with you on this issue.
Where I take exception to Bob Gelfand’s article is the premise that Neighborhood Councils should be independent, not rely on rules or regulations and pretty much do their own thing.
The reason that the very successful Pacific Palisades Community Council has not applied to be certified in the NC system is simple: they don’t want or probably need the money or the rules that go with it. I realize that it is somewhat cynical, but whoever has the money, has the power. As long as NC’s are beholden to the LA taxpayers for their annual funding, there is no free lunch! There must be structure and accountability within the system to keep it clean.
Yes, there are dysfunctional NC’s - and probably every one of the 95 has been dysfunctional at times. A fundamental NC weakness has been lack of leadership training. We recruit volunteers who want to make their neighborhoods better. We don’t insist that they quote Robert’s Rules of Order in order to run for the Board position, and they probably think the Brown Act is a stand-up routine playing at the nearest Improv Club.
Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water…or having EMPOWERLA and BONC decertify an NC or get rid of Board Members, how about a little training? Bob’s conclusion that the community can fix the problems by voting out the Board sounds good, but is not realistic. The voting record for Los Angeles in the citywide elections hovers around “poor,” so how can we expect a better turnout for NC elections?
A few years ago a few NC leaders got together and developed what they call Councils For Councils (C4C). This is a peer group that works with any NC that asks for help. It consults with them to become more successful, and less dysfunctional. Unfortunately, EmpowerLA doesn’t have the time, funds or staff to invest in that kind of individual commitment. The C4C has put together a team of “experts” in the various areas of NC responsibility - from funding to planning and everything in between. Again this is a “volunteer” giving his/her time as well as their own gas.
Chairman of this illustrious group is Jay Handal, co-chair of the Budget Advocates, President of WLANC plus a zillion other groups -including Chief Cheerleader for the Citywide NC’s. (I think he has discovered how to clone himself since he seems to be everywhere.) Is it successful? In order to judge how it was going, I went directly to the sources: three different NC’s who the C4C group has worked with in the past year.
According to Martha Benedict, former NC President (now Secretary), ”Three months into Arroyo Seco's year, after exhaustive efforts, things were not looking good. Despite the seating of many new Board members in the 2012 election, most of the old tension still prevailed.
“ASNC is comprised of five distinct though contiguous neighborhoods. In the previous few years, friction had developed over spending. One of the communities had been receiving the lion's share of the budget. It occurred during the tenure of a Treasurer from that same neighborhood. Distrust, defensiveness and suspicion related to apparent spending violations resulted in frozen funds that lasted about seven months.
“The new Treasurer experimented with a remedy. She implemented a budget that would spend funds proportionately for each neighborhood. What seemed like a good idea at first turned out to exacerbate the tensions even more. ASNC was heading toward decertification.
“Then the C4C team arrived in January 2013. Almost at once, it abolished the spending-by-neighborhood budget, requiring that all funds go into one pot. This was the first step in a process to reunify the ASNC and break the bad habits between the factions.
“Parliamentarian Ivan Spiegel came in to help the President restore order to the fractious meetings. He and Jay Handel scrutinized the ASNC Bylaws to find flaws, but more importantly to locate the systemic ways that would take the Board away from a balkanized identity to one united in purpose. The chief means has been, to form committees addressing NC-wide concerns, to propel members into working on problems of the community as a unified team -not as rivals.
“In addition, a new strategic plan with a greater emphasis on outreach has resulted in an emerging positive identity for ASNC. As the Board promotes itself, morale has soared with a powerful commitment to serve all the stakeholders in the ASNC community.”
So far so good … Next was the Greater Echo Park NC. According to President Ari Bessendorf, this is a very diverse community and factions had not been united. There were some instances of financial misconduct, so EmpowerLA had frozen funds. When asked how GEPENC was doing, he listed seven major accomplishments C4C had accomplished with the cooperation of the Board:
Conducted audit and unfroze funds; paid outstanding amounts owed; moved from illegal office (nothing up to code) to the Cisneros Learning Academy. They completed community grants at the end of fiscal year 2012-2013. The entire board (except new recently appointed representatives) has completed ethics and funding training. Meetings are orderly, noticed and conducted in accordance with the Brown Act. They are in the process of constructing a new website and improving outreach. Ari also commented that if the entire NC’s had the same by-laws, it would be easier for everyone to run their meetings.
I happened to view a YouTube video of the DowntownLA NC recent meeting, which was lively to say the least. This was before I learned they had been part of the C4C program. In speaking with President Patty Berman she said that previous to the C4C intervention, (intervention in this case is accurate) they had multiple problems. Meetings were “highjacked” by a disgruntled Board member who publicly stated he would do everything in his power to “take down” the NC. Board members were leaving because they couldn’t stand the tension. Morale was at an all time low. Board members included representatives from the homeless community who, with few exceptions, wanted the NC to function and contribute to the betterment of the community as a whole.
C4C entered the fray in February, reviewing standing rules, teaching Patty how to conduct a tighter meeting, and handle the trouble-making Board member (by threatening to call the police and have him forcibly removed. He subsequently resigned). The “how to run a meeting” was very helpful especially in light of the current challenges they were facing. C4C came to all of the NC meetings and told her recently that Downtown LA NC had officially “graduated” from the program.
The C4C program is not a one-time shot. They stick with the NC, attend Executive and Board meetings and continue to advise until they feel the Board is able handle the problems. Let’s face it… as long as there is diversity, there will be divergent opinions. It is how we handle them and compromise for the common good that counts.
I have heard comments such as, “we don’t want to wash our dirty linen in public,” etc., meaning some Neighborhood Councils are reticent to discuss their problems. I flat out disagree. The only way we can become better and provide for our stakeholders is to recognize a problem and fix it. None of us have all the answers but it is far better to work within the system and improve it than constantly criticize without providing reasonable and practical fixes. The C4C team is a good start! Maybe we should send them to Congress.
(Denyse Selesnick is a Board member of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council, and Vice Chair of the Outreach Committee. She is a former Publisher/Journalist now a contributor to CityWatch covering Neighborhood Council Land.)
Vol 11 Issue 92
Pub: Nov 15, 2013