GELFAND ON … HOW NEIGHBORHOOD DEMOCRACY WORKS-Consider an elected board facing a controversial proposal which has split the community. Add to the mix the fact that most of the board members are fairly new, and that the chairman is brand new. We've been told again and again that it's a recipe for disaster.
Here's the story of just such a situation, and what happened one recent Monday night.
A couple of years ago, a major landslide took down a 600 foot section of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Pedro, California. The slide was not only long, but wide. It took down a section of the coast road along with thousands of tons of dirt and a palm tree or two. The road had connected the east side of town to the west. The road -- what's left of it -- is known as Paseo del Mar.
The Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council (CSPNC) including yours truly took up the issue immediately, making connections with the city's elected officials while creating an ad hoc committee of our own to represent the interests of the local homeowners and the community at large. Then we settled in and watched. The city, in somewhat of a surprise move, acted expeditiously by hiring a geological consulting firm, bringing in its own engineering staff, and doing expensive studies. The CSPNC ad hoc landslide committee listened and watched.
It should be explained that the area of the slide was at the top of sea cliffs that rise steeply 120 feet above the water. The cliffsides have been the site for flora, fauna, and the occasional suicide. Physically, they are a larger version of a pail of dirt squashed flat. They are made of the silt and mud that settled to the bottom of the sea for thousands of years. Since we are in an extended geological era of land rising out of the sea, the result has been that over the millenia, the vertical column consisting of all these layers of dirt rose out of the water to create the California coastline.
The area in question, from the Point Fermin Lighthouse on the south, past the abandoned Nike missile base to the north, is just that sort of formation. The cliffs are steep and fragile, and any little something like too much rain can be enough to cause a section to break off. We've been seeing something similar in the Santa Monica area for years. Build on top of steep cliffs made of mudstone, and eventually you will see half a swimming pool connected to half a living room hanging over the edge, and police tape at the bottom.
The CSPNC landslide committee met many times, and seems to have come to the conclusion that vehicular traffic in the area is the major issue. It has introduced a series of findings and motions about traffic mitigation that the neighborhood council governing board (myself included) endorsed routinely for the most part. Most of the ideas were either reasonable or inconsequential, dealing with quick fixes needed for anticipated parking problems during the summer months.
Some of the motions seemed a little self serving, in that they were intended to slow down traffic that ran past the houses of several of the committee members. None of this was totally unreasonable, at least to start with. We know that seaside traffic picks up in the summer, and if not diverted, it would pile up at the site where the road is broken. Otherwise, it would have to spontaneously detour somewhere.
The obvious direction for traffic to detour would be the hillside streets running perpendicularly up from Paseo del Mar. Not surprisingly, residents of those hillside streets recognize increased traffic flow and blame some of it on the slide-induced road closure.
It was in this context that the CSPNC landslide committee introduced a truly surprising motion. It startled quite a lot of us and, as its proponents were surprised to discover, divided the community.
What did they do that was so special? Their motion asked us to advise the city never to repair or replace the broken section of road. This certainly seemed strange on the face of it. One would think that the remedy for a broken road would be to fix the road.
Let's consider the logic. The loss of Paseo del mar forces hundreds of cars to detour up the adjacent hillsides that surround the cliffs. To the people who live along the hillsides, the problem is self evident. The loss of Paseo del Mar has added to the traffic burden where they live. It's also obvious what the solution is. Fix Paseo del Mar and thereby end the problem.
But the members of the landslide committee argued otherwise. It was not entirely obvious what they were thinking at first, but some of the reasoning eventually became clear. The backbone of the committee consists of people who live near the slide and along the remaining section of Paseo del Mar. They have been enjoying a quieter existence since the slide, since the heavy traffic that went up and down Paseo del Mar is gone. No more ear rattling motorcycles screaming up the road at all hours. No more city buses. You might amusedly refer to what they have gained by that legalistic term "quiet enjoyment." In short, the destruction of the road serves the interests of some people, and they constituted enough of the CSPNC landslide committee to pass the motion that was then presented to the governing board. In due course that motion ended up on a board agenda.
And there you have it. A divided community, some of whom want the city to leave the status quo in place, and others who feel that broken roads should be rebuilt. Some of the latter people feel a strong attachment to that road, because it was among the more beautiful, scenic spots to drive during a summer sunset with the view of Catalina Island directly offshore.
If you have attended a meeting of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners or even some City Council committee meetings over the past few years, you would have been warned what to expect. You would expect this neighborhood council meeting to break into screaming factions, public derision, perhaps the odd fistfight, and a badly damaged governing board. That's what we read about in the press, by golly. And of course there would have to be complaints and threats filed with city agencies such as the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Would it be a normal week without at least one person demanding that a neighborhood council be abolished somewhere in the city?
Well here is what happened.
We heard from perhaps a dozen or so members of the community who want the city to abandon all prospects of repairing Paseo del Mar. Our tradition as a neighborhood council is that we do not put limits on stakeholder speeches. If they can finish in 2 minutes, that's fine, but if somebody with a particularly complex argument needs five or six minutes to make his point, well, we figure that that's what we're there for. So we heard from all of the proponents of the motion to abandon the reconstruction of the road. We also heard from a few people from the community who prefer that the road be reconstructed.
Here's one other little peculiarity of CSPNC. Not only don't we put time limits on stakeholder speeches, we also don't put limits on the number of speeches they give. A few came back to offer new comments or rebuttals to other speeches.
Again -- Hearing from our residents is what we are for. We do that first, and we do it for as long as it takes.
Then our governing board spoke. Most of us referred respectfully to the fact that the community is split on the issue. For most of us, the solution is to recognize the split and not try to force the neighborhood council board to take sides. Since the function and purpose of our governing board, as we see it, is to collect and represent the views of the community, it is enough for the governing board to take official recognition that the community is split, and to favor neither side. For the most part, that is what our governing board members (myself included) said. I added that I would very much like the road to be rebuilt, but that I felt that the purpose of the neighborhood council is served by not taking a side.
Then something else happened that may also be peculiar to our neighborhood council. We made sure to offer more time to stakeholders who wished to talk about what the governing board had said, or just to add to the discussion.
At the end of the discussion, which had taken well over an hour, we considered a parliamentary resolution known as the motion to postpone indefinitely. It is rarely used in neighborhood council meetings, but then again we don't usually have these kinds of community splits. The result of this motion was to remove this discussion from our council permanently, or at least until our next fiscal year, should someone want to bring it up again.
And what of the turmoil, the screaming, the protests lodged and the grievances filed? We haven't seen any so far. Maybe somebody will write a letter, or even a competing column in City Watch. After all, I'm already up to the count of 3 on columns responding to my columns. But if so, these will be in the nature of civilized replies to what we have done and said.
So to return to my introductory remarks, the prognostications of the pseudo-experts in the City Hall and by all of our volunteer know-it-alls came to nothing.
Civilized people can remain civilized, even when they have a conflict to settle. We are not children, and we carried on our deliberations without help from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, nor from the Violence in the Workplace training group, nor from the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. (Just typing all these titles takes most of a paragraph -- maybe we have too many of them.)
Equally to the point, nobody got up at the beginning of the meeting and told us to treat each other with respect. It was plenty obvious that some of the arguments were hot air, and many of us recognized this from the start. Respect? No. Lack of interruptions? Yes.
So there is another take home lesson here, and it's one I have been trying to explain to DONE and the BONC for most of the past decade. Parliamentary procedure works. Having board members who know how to work under Parliamentary procedure works. We don't have to like each other or even to respect each other. We just need to know when to shut up. That's the essence of Roberts Rules most of the time, and it worked this time.
Here's the other take home lesson. I believe that our meeting last Monday represented the essence of what neighborhood councils are for. They are a place where the entire community can come together and everyone can have his or her say. Allowing extended discussion by the stakeholders is essential. Some may find this a bit much, but our answer is this: If that isn't what we exist for, than what?
I think we also showed that a lot of newcomers who aren't politicians and are just now learning the details of Roberts Rules can do just fine. They have life experience, they have learned how to work with other people over the years, and when put to the test, they performed. It's good enough.
I'll do a bit of a reach and suggest that out of all this civility and extended debate, the opposing sides may have learned something from each other. Those of us who want the road rebuilt have figured out that if and when it is done, it has to be carried out in a way that will least inconvenience the people who live nearby. Any new construction should be designed to limit the amount of road noise and speeding that had become chronic on Paseo del Mar. I think that those who hoped to block the road reconstruction learned that there is a substantial opposition, and that they should work with us to find some mutual accommodation.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]).
Vol 11 Issue 94
Pub: Nov 22, 2013