Sat, Dec

Don’t Sweat Who Can Vote in Neighborhood Council Elections


THE CITY-There has been entirely too much time spent discussing who should be eligible to vote in neighborhood council elections.  The answer is to simply go back to the way the City Charter intended it to be. 

You’ll lose brain cells trying to figure out that one size can’t fit all. 

When I drafted the original City Charter language for the neighborhood council section, I felt that the system should not be a duplicate of our representative (one man, one vote) government system.  We didn’t need another City Council. 

Instead, we needed, as the City Charter prescribes, a system that would promote public participation in government.  So if someone wants to participate in more than one neighborhood council that is a good thing. 

During the Neighborhood Council Review Commission’s hearings of the system, a man addressed the commissioners and explained that he was separated from his wife and young daughter who lived in Los Angeles.  He moved to an apartment in Santa Monica, but his priority was his daughter – the quality of her schooling, the safety of her neighborhood, etc.  So he wanted to ensure that any new rules would still allow him to serve on his neighborhood council board. 

To determine who, at a minimum, should be allowed to serve on a council board I borrowed the words “lives, works, or owns property” from the St. Paul, Minnesota neighborhood council ordinance. 

At the time, it seemed to be pretty inclusive.  If someone worked downtown and was concerned about traffic and development, and lived in Palms, that language would allow him/her to be a full participant in both councils.

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But after the voters approved the new City Charter, the City Council enacted some more detailed ordinances, and included language that recommended even broader definitions. 

The City Council wisely realized that those worked in non-profit agencies, for example, had a strong argument for equality.  In some communities, non-profits are the center of community activity.  In other communities, it’s the churches. 

As the neighborhood council system was getting off the ground, each council determined how it would run its elections, just the way states do.  The feeling of the City Charter drafters was there wasn’t enough wisdom among City Hall bureaucrats to design a single set of rules that would work for all the councils. 

The charter drafters felt strongly that if “empowerment” were to mean anything, it would mean, as the City Charter guarantees, that City Hall “shall not restrict the method by which the members of a neighborhood council are chosen ….” 

There were bumps along the way as neighborhood councils learned about flaws in their election procedures.  

Unfortunately, there have been people who feel that they know how everyone else should run their elections, and a lot of time has been wasted discussing the ideas 

There have been some examples of special interest groups trying to “take over” the election of a neighborhood council with liberal rules.  In these situations, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and other neighborhood council activists should share best examples, and their best advice with the councils, and let them make the kind of decisions that the City Charter entrusts them to make. 

Those who want to impose their solutions on all neighborhood councils need to answer four questions: 

1.  If we can’t trust each neighborhood council to decide what’s best for their stakeholders, why should your solution be trusted? 

2.  What should neighborhood councils be empowered to do anyway? 

3.  If you want impose citywide election rules, how extensive are the citywide problems that you are attempting to resolve?  

4.  How do you increase participation in government and in neighborhood councils by limiting those who can participate?


(Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was instrumental in the creation of the LA Neighborhood Council System, served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs …  and occasionally writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)





Vol 13 Issue 39

Pub: May 12, 2015