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LA’s Neighborhood Councils Flunk City Charter Responsibilities

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NC WATCH-Someone, whose opinion I respect greatly- in discussion of my second favorite subject … Neighborhood Councils (NC)- said “I will bet you that more than half of the people elected to the various NC Boards don’t have a clue as to what they are supposed to be doing.” 

Since he was there at the beginning and has had a bird’s eye view of both the progress and dysfunction of LA’s NC’s, I decided to check out the LA Charter to see if I understood the mandate properly. Out of the list of goals for NC’s here is the short version of the four most important: Being a voice for community at City hall; holding City Hall accountable; promoting civic engagement; and working with the Mayor on the budget. 

Let’s start with what is NOT a representative voice for the Community. 

CHARACTERISTICS OF AN AVERAGE NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL TODAY 

1) NC has an average stakeholder population of 38,000 (minimum is 20,000 but many NC’s have thousands more);

2) A weekly email blast going to 900 addresses

3) An average Board meeting with 20 stakeholders in attendance

4) Participates in one or two community events a year

5) Has four committees that meet semi -regularly but are mostly presenting to the Board the same old suggestions

6) Appoints a designated representative, who attends one of the Alliance or Budget Advocate meetings but never has sufficient notice to query the Board as to their opinion…so votes their own

7) Presents a two -minute report on the work of the Alliance- if it is on the Agenda and there is time

8) Never formally or informally survey’s their stakeholders as to their opinions and suggestions

9) Shows up at the photo-ops with the City Council Member and spends time congratulating themselves for doing such a great job for the community 

I would wager that the majority of the NC’s are operating this way today and they are among the better ones.   A quick clue … this type of NC really doesn’t represent anyone other than the people on the Board and - minority opinions that are not given any credence.  It is not like the Supreme Court where the minority opinions are both widely disseminated and publicly discussed. 

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE VOICE FOR YOUR COMMUNITY? 

 Land Use Committees probably have the most influence.  In this instance the NC’s do a pretty good job.  When there are any building developments or changes proposed in the neighborhood, the parties involved present their project to the Land Use Committee.  Some NC’s really exist for this reason-either encouraging development, deciding on the height of a fence, or allowing a Condominium project to be built. There are some NC’s that see this kind of development as an economic boon to the neighborhood, while others are definitely in a no-growth no- change mode. 

If you want to get more than 20 people to an NC Board meeting include any kind of building decision, homeless shelter or pot shop location on the agenda and it’s an automatic draw.  The Land Use Committee makes a recommendation to the Board after reviewing all of the material and then its up to the NC Board to approve or disapprove. 

The City Planning Commission usually looks at the recommendations of the NC involved.  If there is any controversy at all- the NC is welcome to present their findings in the public forum.  There is a City-wide Alliance of NC Land Use Committee Chairs and various City Departments called Plan Check, who meets monthly.  Now with a major five- year City project called Re-Code LA, we are going to hear much more about getting our building codes up to the 21st Century. There are several NC members on this twenty-one-person committee, including the Co-Chair, Sharon Commins (Mar Vista NC) See more here: 

OUTREACH-OUTREACH-OUTREACH 

In my opinion, the largest failure of the NC’s, is in their engagement, or lack there of, with their stakeholders and the failure to make those stakeholders feel that the City was listening.  After all this was the reason the Neighborhood Council System was established in the first place. The catchall phrase for these activities is called “Outreach.”  Every NC should have an Outreach Committee, which should be the center of NC activities as well as the largest part of the budget. 

 Being a Board member on Neighborhood Council is a lot of work…or it should be.  Outreach is not spending the majority of your budget on administrative costs and Neighborhood grants to favorite groups. It is getting involved with other community associations, working with schools and religious organizations on civic concerns.  It is partnering with other NC’s in the District with events so the reach is extended and the financial outlay lessened.  It is having your community know who you are and what you are doing and most important it is LISTENING.  

There are quite a few NC’s that have excellent events, with high community participation.  The problem is most of them miss the opportunity to query the visitors and find out what’s on their minds, aside from street repair, potholes, and rising DWP rates. How difficult would it be to have a cadre of volunteers with clip Boards asking questions?  I don’t mean using the “sign my petition” speech. It is asking a few well- directed questions and listening to the answers. What a great way to also solicit committee help from people you don’t know.  

Yes, it is much easier to ask people to fill out a questionnaire, but the last thing your stakeholders want to do is fill out paperwork while attending an event.  As a group… our intelligence gathering is pitiful.  

GATHERING DATA 

EmpowerLA did a fairly good job of breaking down the numbers on the recent elections, but I haven’t seen the results of the individual surveys they asked the voters to fill out after they left the voting booths. We need to encourage young people to get involved in public service.  Here is a great opportunity to get those kids, who will be the next voters, involved. While gathering market data for the NC, they also become involved in the challenges and attributes of their neighborhood. 

How about gathering email addresses for the NC database?  This is a major weakness in reaching stakeholders. Postage makes direct mail prohibitive.  Utilizing social media is becoming a necessity – not a luxury!  EmpowerLA has been working on getting some kind of electronic stakeholder database for almost a year. 

Some argue that if your email information is compelling…people will want to subscribe and word of mouth is the best way to get subscribers. Everyone gets bombarded with emails so how do you convince people to subscribe to yours? Most of the services NC’s use keep monthly tabs on the open rate (the number of people who actually look at your message) and this is a great way to gauge stakeholder interest.  How many NC’s chart their progress?   How many NC’s don’t even have web sites? 

COMMUNITY IMPACT STATEMENTS 

There is another big gap in what the Charter specifies and where NC’s fail.   This involves getting the community’s opinions to the City officials. There is something called a Community Impact Statement (CIS).  The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) and EmpowerLA have been talking about giving NC’s a template so that they could present many more CIS’s to the City Council. NC’s are obligated to weigh in on any subject that affects stakeholders. They are tasked with giving advice to City officials.   Surely someone on the Board or even a “legislative” committee could handle the responsibility to check Council files and report the issues of the month in order to determine if the Community is being affected by the proposed legislation? The EmpowerLA website keeps a weekly list. 

There have seen lots of complaints in various articles in City Watch about the NC’s being independent of City Hall and making officials accountable. On the other side, there are lots of complaints about NC representatives being treated like John Q Public when they want to address the City Council or a Committee hearing.  How can the City officials be held accountable when the NC’s are not willing to do the work necessary?  Yes, it’s time consuming.  Obviously, since BONC has yet to send the NC’s anything resembling a CIS template it must be complicated. The CIS subject has been mentioned at almost every BONC meeting since January and nothing happens. The one issue that garnered sixteen CIS papers was to allow beekeeping in residential areas. 

A suggestion was made last year that each of the seven BONC Commissioners take one or two of the City Council Committees and attend meetings or at least check them online and disseminate to the rest of the Commissioners and the NC’s in their area. This alleviates the complaint that Boards are the last to know about a file going before the entire Council, without having had a chance to weigh in at the Committee level. It also gives the Commissioner an area of expertise in a City department and a face to face working relationship with that Committee Chair and even more important the staff doing the actual work. 

A majority of Board members also have jobs…but each NC can find smart willing people who have the time to attend these meetings or review them online, and most important bring the information back.  These are not State secrets! 

NC’S AND POLICE CHIEF BECK 

Police Chief Charles Beck is asking for an additional five-year term.  Have any of the NC’s looked at his record of pluses and minuses and presented their collective opinion to the City Council?  I haven’t seen the Police Chief at any of the NC major events or Alliance meetings.  He did attend a meeting of police officers yesterday to discuss the proposed contract they declined.  You’d better believe that if he considered the NC approval or disapproval important, he would be asking to address the various Alliances. It is noteworthy that those candidates running for County Supervisor and some of the State offices felt it important to address the NC’s. 


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Why doesn’t one of the Alliances organize a Town Hall where hundreds of stakeholders can get information first hand and ask questions?  Since Beck is working full time and also “campaigning”, it would be more expedient for him to address a big group rather than a dozen small ones.  All stakeholders are directly affected by police actions and many are involved in Neighborhood Watches and other types of police oriented community activities 

 I’m not a lawyer … and obviously not a politician … BUT it seems to me that the Charter amendment is both specific in the responsibilities but very broad in what constitutes effective and creative ways of fulfilling those duties. 

I would love to hear some of your ideas as to how to expand the reach to the stakeholders and increase the NC influence, on behalf of those stakeholders, to City Hall.

 

(Denyse Selesnick is a contributor to CityWatch covering activities, policies and foibles in NC Land.  She is Co-Chair, Program Committee for the LA Neighborhood Congress to be held September 20 at City Hall, and a former officer and Board member of the Tarzana Neighborhood Council.  She can be reached at [email protected]

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 58

Pub: Jul 18, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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