GELFAND’S WORLD - Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a strong secessionist movement in the city of Los Angeles. People felt that government was distant and non-responsive. All kinds of promises were made.
Some few, small reforms were instituted, one of which was the creation of a system of neighborhood councils, supposed to bring government and the people closer. There was more, in the sense that successive generations of City Council candidates have promised to hear from the residents.
On Wednesday, I learned the reality of a distant, arrogant government.
My story involves a Los Angeles City Council committee known as the Neighborhoods and Community Enrichment Committee. This is the City Council committee which oversees the whole neighborhood council system.
Now the one thing that the Charter and city government claim to be doing in creating a neighborhood council system is to bring government closer to the people. Since a distant and aloof city government was the problem that provoked the secession movements in the first place, this was the bone tossed to L.A. residents.
So you might imagine that the Neighborhoods and Community Enrichment committee would be a bastion of openness and welcome thoughts, a place where citizens of Los Angeles could come and discuss their concerns, not only about the neighborhood council system, but about how the city government performs its necessary functions.
Now let's talk about the reality
The N&CE committee had a meeting calendared for this week. In this case, it was set for 8:30 AM on Wednesday. There were a few make-work agenda items, but the one I came for, and hoped to talk about, was a presentation by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils Coalition (LANCC). Let's consider what the reality was, for this lone citizen of Los Angeles, who hoped to have a dialogue with the people who rule over our neighborhood council system.
Let's start with that starting time. Los Angeles is a wide place, to put it simply. My trip from San Pedro is 26 miles, resulting in a 52-mile round trip. Those of you from the valley will have similar issues. There is also the problem of parking in the downtown area for anything less than the proverbial arm and a leg.
So let's put two and a half gallons of gasoline on the tab to start with, say $12.50 on a normal day.
Let's also consider the getting up and driving element. I was up shortly after 5 AM, figuring I would need to leave no later than 6:30 or so if I wanted to deal with traffic.
I did get there, only to find that just 2 of the 3 committee members had also managed to make it in time for the start of the meeting.
But then, the ugly reality.
I had hoped, in my naive benevolent spirit, that I would be allowed to provide my public comment following the LANCC presentation, because there is a lot of history involved, and I didn't know what particular issues the LANCC representatives would bring up.
Now the ugliest of the ugly: After that 26 mile, 2 hour process of travel, I was informed that public comment was limited to 1 minute. Let's consider the attitude this communicates: The committee is not interested in what we have to say, wants to get it through as quickly as possible, and has a digital timer that counts down from 60 seconds. No matter how cogent or important your words are, at 60 seconds you are told that your time is up.
So that's what we are -- 60 seconds on the clock to be endured.
If I had to summarize my experience of Wednesday morning, it would be that the Neighborhoods and Community Enrichment committee stands in opposition to everything that the 1999 Charter reform stood for. Where the Charter at least tried for some community engagement, this committee stands for bored tolerance of citizen comment, as long as we don't take any substantial part of their time.
The LANCC presentation
LANCC had spent a substantial amount of time negotiating with the committee so that it could be allowed to be heard. On the day, there were two representatives who were well versed in the history of the neighborhood council system and gave a logical and meaningful presentation which centered on the Declaration of Neighborhood Council Rights which we have recently passed, and which has been presented here previously.
Doug Epperhart pointed out the recent demands by the city that neighborhood council participants take increasingly onerous hours of training, and that these requirements have resulted in our losing good people who would otherwise have joined us. It is, increasingly, a significant bar to entry, particularly for people who work for a living or are raising children.
The committee members couldn't have looked more bored. In fact, the committee chair said that it reminded her of what she has to go through in government, what with the training and bureaucratic delays she has endured. There wasn't a wet eye in the house, I have to say, as most people in the room considered that such sacrifices are obviated by a salary in excess of two hundred thousand dollars a year.
I think that the LANCC people made some good points, and I'd like to think that the members of the committee heard some of them. But I would have liked to make my public comments in reply to the LANCC presentation, because I was in at the creation of LANCC (indeed, the whole neighborhood council system) and it would have been logical and useful to speak at that point.
No such luck. The committee has a rule, which is that public comment comes at the beginning. There may be other rules about getting a chance to speak in response to agenda items, but the committee and their staff were not willing to help me. It was speak right at the start, or shut up.
So I spoke for my one minute giving some general comments which referred to items you have read here in past columns. But consider -- how is it possible to explain the problems of Exhaustive Efforts or the behavior of the previous General Manager, or the ignorance of DONE staff in one minute?
It's not. And that is probably the point. If the committee members had any interest in what we have to say, they would have arranged to hear from us. It's not impossible. Former committee chair David Ryu visited neighborhood council alliances around the city and spent hours in each one, hearing from everyone who wanted to speak. Even the previous DONE General Manager, despite her faults, did a "listening tour" where she visited dozens of neighborhood councils and their alliances.
But when a committee doesn't want to hear from you, they have rules and time limits and 8:30 AM starting times to deter the public from attending and, even if there, from being able to communicate.
A chance encounter
After the committee was adjourned, I did manage to catch up with Councilman Lee, a member of the committee. He was willing to take a few moments to listen to me. My message to him was simple: If you really want to hear from us, schedule the committee meeting at a better time and give us enough time to actually communicate our thoughts. I don't know if he agreed with any of what I said, or even cared, but at least he listened.
Let's compare that conversation with how I was treated in the official part of the meeting. There were 3 people speaking on public comment total, and they disposed of our testimony in a total of 4 minutes.
That's not bringing government closer to the people.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)