Mon, Feb

Neighborhood Councils: Why Nobody Understands and Those Who Think They Do Really Don't


GELFAND’S WORLD-It's time that there be some intrusion of reality into discussions about neighborhood councils. People demand too much of them, and the people who are the most demanding and unrealistic are within our own ranks. Outsiders who aren't making unmerited demands are busy creating misunderstandings. 

For `exhibit A, I'm going to link to an otherwise well written piece from the Venice Dispatch, which comes with an unfortunate headline, "Venice Neighborhood Council Approves Hotel for Abbot Kinney Boulevard." Why is this wrong? It's simple. The law does not give neighborhood councils the right to do abdominal surgery, to declare war, or to control land use, and stories that imply any of the above, however inadvertently, lead the public in the wrong direction. 

In this case, the idea that a neighborhood council has any right of approval over a real estate project is well meant, but is seriously misleading to the naive reader. It's an error that we see all too often in writings about the system. 

Let's indulge ourselves for one short paragraph to remember what it is that the law asks of neighborhood councils. Basically, we are invited to evaluate city government services, to hear from the public, and to offer advice to the City Council and the Mayor. I think it's obvious that the advice we offer is supposed to be based on hearing from the wider public. 

But it's just advice. The law does not give us decision making authority over whether more police are added to your neighborhood, whether the city builds a new library building, or in this case, whether a privately held plot of land will enjoy the presence of a new hotel, as opposed to the neighbors enjoying a quieter street. 

Nagging by the City Council, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, or the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment doesn't change these facts. They may want us to go out and recruit new people, to spend unpaid hours publicizing what we do, and to inspire lots of voters to come to our elections -- and I've heard all of these demands repeated ad nauseam -- but we aren't really required to do any of that. We are invited -- let's repeat that word -- invited, to advise the city officials on what they ought to be doing. 

It's true that the city's Charter language indulges in rhetorical excess by giving the neighborhood council system some defined purposes which include increased public participation in government. Notice that it is not an actual requirement. It's just a bit of rhetorical flourish that serves to pretend some deep and honorable intention. It would have been more honest for the authors of City Charter Section  9 to have written, "In order to stave off any further talk of valley secession or harbor breakaway, this Charter hereby tosses a bone to our angry populace." 

So now let's consider what happened at the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) a few nights ago. Then we can consider the actual meaning of their verdict, and what effect it will have on the real world. 

The story is fairly simple. The undisputed factual background is that a property owner wants to put up a hotel on a street called Abbot Kinney Boulevard in the Venice section of Los Angeles. It's also clear that there is no request for a zoning variance because none is needed. Nevertheless, a number of Venice residents don't want to see that hotel getting built. You can read a fairly comprehensive discussion of the meeting in the article linked above, where the pro and con sides of the discussion are made clear. 

Where I part ways with this article is in the headline, which implies, however unintentionally, that neighborhood councils get to approve or disapprove proposed developments. 

They don't. 

But we see this sort of headline routinely in local internet newsletters and, once in a while, in the mainstream media. It's not true that neighborhood councils get rights of approval/disapproval in any legalistic sense. They get to give advice, and as I write repeatedly here on City Watch, they should be crafting that advice based on what they hear from their residents. 

Getting back to Venice -- I don't think it's possible to evaluate the feelings of the entirety of Venice residents based on the account of this one meeting, since there does not seem to have been any attempt at polling the stakeholders. In addition, I don't think that we can be sure that the crowd that gathered to testify is necessarily a good statistical representation of the entire community. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn't. We just don't know, and short of some careful opinion polling, we probably won't know. Short of that, probably the best the VNC can do is to hold a meeting and see if there is a definitive majority on one side or the other. 

So the VNC gets the nod here for having held the meeting, and gets a further nod for taking its time to hear, for taking its time to deliberate, and for being almost perfectly divided on the question. 

That last remark was not intended to be facetious. Well, only a little, anyway. In a situation where there are lots of people speaking in favor and lots of people speaking in opposition, it's tempting for neighborhood council board members to think of themselves as elected officials who are supposed to vote their own consciences, just like they do up in Sacramento or at the City Hall. 

I don't think that's really what the purpose of neighborhood councils is supposed to be. The ultimate power in the city of Los Angeles resides in the City Council, and our charge is to be a conduit between the large populations in our districts and the City Council representatives who necessarily have to oversee an even larger district. We help the City Council by being their eyes and ears in the community, and that holds true whether they like the advice we give them or not. 

The VNC might have come to the conclusion that the community was split on the issue, and reported that fact directly. I suspect that the City Councilman understands that point anyway, and will have drawn his own conclusions from the meeting and from lots of other stakeholder input. But instead of reporting that the community is fairly evenly split, the VNC chose to vote on whether or not to approve the construction. According to the report, the vote was 9 in favor and 7 opposed. It's not a really resounding vote of support. I also think that even to have considered the motion in this form represents an approach that was less wise than what they could have done. 

And yet, given the fact that hotel supporters came out a couple of votes ahead, the media get to report the vote of approval, in spite of the fact that this vote has essentially no legal weight whatsoever. It's true that the City Councilman has the right to base his actions on advice he gets from a neighborhood council, but I think that in this case, the vote will serve at best as the fig leaf on a decision that has already been made. 

You are entitled to ask why I am making such an issue out of this story. After all, you may think, the City Councilman knows the facts and community opinion. Furthermore, we have lots of experience that City Council members routinely ignore neighborhood council advice, so why should we take this one vote at all seriously? 

But the public are not as knowledgeable about city government as CityWatch readers, or even neighborhood council board members. When a naive reader sees that a neighborhood council "approved" some new development, it is misleading. 

And what that leads to is a lot of neighborhood residents putting more faith in the acts of its local council than reality justifies. It also results in lots of freshly minted neighborhood council board members who come to the institution all fired up and ready to go, wanting to create change and to institute reform. And what do they actually get? 

The answer is to be found in a quip by an outgoing president, made more than half a century ago. As Harry Truman said about Eisenhower right after Ike won the 1952 election, "He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” (numerous attributions, originally R. Neustadt) 

I see that same kind of result month in, month out, in my district. We are one of nine neighborhood councils in my councilmanic district, of equal standing with eight other councils. Why should my colleagues believe that the elected official, the one with the ultimate power and responsibility, has to jump to their demands? 

If you look at what we are supposed to do, which is to offer advice to our city government, and then look at what we actually do, which is to offer advice to our city government, then you will realize that we are successful in the terms defined by the City Charter. If you think that this is too narrow a purpose, you are free to call for another round of Charter revisions, but until those go through (sometime between the eleventh and the twelfth of never, I expect) don't criticize us because we aren't turning water into wine. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]







Vol 12 Issue 16

Pub: Feb 25, 2014