Thu, May

A Classic Case of Overreaching


GELFAND’S WORLD - There are lots of examples to show overreaching by government in microcosm. Cassidy Hutchinson talks about what her bosses were doing along one corridor of the White House. I talk about the neighborhood council system here in Los Angeles. The two are orders of magnitude different in importance, but the conclusions are, often enough, coming from the same characteristics of human nature.

Today I am going to talk about how our neighborhood councils have been bullied and misled by the office of the City Attorney, a problem which stems from inappropriate timidity. A lot of what City Attorneys do looks like simple ass covering. Being litigation averse, they tend to say No to any action which might even conceivably cause trouble for the city. They even have a language of their own for this timidity -- if they can't concoct a solid legal argument to forbid something, they say that they "advise" a neighborhood council not to do it. Sometimes there is the vague threat that the city would not defend us should a lawsuit occur in response to some action we are considering taking. It's nonsense, but they pull that argument out when everything else fails.

Nowadays, they are even forbidding us to do something that by rights ought to be our natural purview. I'm talking about the right of a neighborhood council to send a message to the state legislature or the federal government regarding something that affects us directly.

Here's one example. The Vincent Thomas Bridge is the big green thing that connects San Pedro with Terminal Island and then ultimately (over another bridge) to Long Beach. It is a major artery for car and truck traffic along the coast. And it is broken.

The concrete deck is worn out by decades of truck travel and must be replaced. Depending on which method of replacement is adopted, it will either close completely for a year, or close partially for up to 3 years. Obviously, there is a serious choice to be made, and it will directly affect local communities such as San Pedro and Wilmington.

You would think that this would be an obvious topic for neighborhood councils. We should be debating and advising Caltrans of our wishes. We should be polling our constituents and holding town hall meetings. But there is a potential catch.

Going back to City Attorney (CA) Rocky Delgadillo in the mid 2000's, the office of the CA has been saying that the neighborhood councils cannot take positions regarding the actions of the state or the federal government. Under this definition, only the City Council and mayor can take a position regarding the policies and actions of other levels of government. It is true that the city code carefully defines the ability of the City Council to entangle itself in such affairs. This is reasonable to some extent, in the sense that we don't want the Department of Sanitation or the Department of Cultural Affairs to negotiate agreements on their own with the state or the federal government. They can ask the City Council to negotiate on their behalf, and the City Council can say Yes, or it can say No. It is somewhat akin to the Constitutional power to negotiate treaties which is granted to the President, while the power to ratify such treaties is expressly granted to the U.S. Senate. So, the City of Los Angeles has written an analogous rule into its own laws.

However, now comes the question of whether my neighborhood council can send a message to Caltrans (and hence to the State of California) regarding our views on the way that the Vincent Thomas Bridge is to be repaired. It affects us directly and it affects us greatly. We ought to be able to have our say.

So, what does the CA say about our little problem? It's curious, but in the Neighborhood Council Training Manual (Rockard J. Delgadillo, City Attorney, 2006), the answer to the question, "May neighborhood councils take positions on state or federal legislation?" the answer is No.

So, in theory, anything we say about the way the bridge is repaired goes counter to that prohibition, because any bridge repair mechanism involves state budget items and includes specifications that need to be passed by the state legislature. The immediately previous City Attorney came up with a similar ruling on whether neighborhood councils can communicate with the state government.

So let me tell you how the question is being handled in the real world.

Our new City Council representative totally ignores such limitations. He has been to our governing board meetings and has spoken about the prospective bridge closure. Representatives of Caltrans have been to our meetings and have talked about the bridge closure. Those representatives listened to our stakeholders and to our board members as we explained our own views. Nobody has yet tried to tell us that the board and our stakeholders are forbidden from taking a position and speaking out publicly about our wishes.

The question is now coming up publicly. The old rules are getting in the way of how neighborhood councils represent the interests of their districts. And we are asking, and often get referred to the old rules.

But when put to the question, City Attorney representatives at Saturday's neighborhood council congress breakout session were evasive.

When the CA representative raised the issue of whether a neighborhood council can communicate directly with state or national government, the answer, curiously enough, was that "they are discussing it." Maybe they will go one way, and maybe the other. They do acknowledge that there are good arguments on our side of the issue, leaving us to anticipate that they might just drop the whole thing entirely and never talk about it again -- because an attempt to enforce such a policy would lose in the courts and result in a major embarrassment.

That bit of language in the City Charter

Let me talk about what the law says. The City Charter is the law for the City of Los Angeles, with all municipal code sections subordinate to it. Any municipal ordinance must be consistent with the Charter. What does the Charter say about the functioning of neighborhood councils? Here is one part that refers directly to the rights and authority of neighborhood councils:

"and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood"

Notice that in the Charter language, the scope of what we advise about is essentially unlimited. Anything that is of concern to the neighborhood is within that scope. Is it a bridge that is under the control of the state highway agency? The answer is obvious that shutting down the bridge for any period of time is of concern to my neighborhood.

How about the United States Air Force base in my district? Most of what it does is not of concern to other parts of San Pedro, but there has been an occasion when the commanding officer came to our neighborhood council to talk about some building project, they were going to do that would affect us. We claim the right to have an opinion, pass a motion, and to communicate that motion to the Air Force and to the congressional representative. Our right to do so is there in the Charter language, even if the CA wants to pretend something different.

But the reality of the Charter language is directly contrary to advice that the City Attorney representatives have given us over the years. Not only that, but this advice has been given out to neighborhood councils in an unequal way. My council down in San Pedro never heard from our city representatives that we were forbidden to talk to the congresswoman (she was right there at our meeting) or to the Caltrans people (they came to a meeting), and we routinely cc'd motions to state legislators. But other neighborhood councils were told that they were forbidden to contact the state legislature. We heard about such orders basically by rumor.

Since those other neighborhood councils have questioned such limitations, the new City Attorney and her staff of lawyers are now considering a change in the CA's position on the matter. My advice to them is that they consider the plain language in the Charter and stop trying to compare neighborhood councils with the City Council. The fact that the City Council is powerful and neighborhood councils are weak and limited is a difference that is germane to the argument, even though current City Attorney staff seem to treat neighborhood councils as if they were subject to the same limitations as the City Council. The logic is weak.

The Neighborhood Council Congress

As mentioned above, the congress finally occurred over the weekend. I've been critical of its limited scope. In particular, the corruption on the City Council needed to be discussed. I don't know whether Council members are still soliciting bribes, but it is obvious that there was some sort of Brown Act violation going on when they rejected the Jamie York nomination to the Ethics Commission. We should have been talking about such things.

Instead, the Ethics Commission was represented by a couple of its staffers, who gave a detailed description of what they are supposed to do, and an even more detailed description of how to use their online tools to find out which office holder is receiving how much money from whom.

I would have preferred to be running my own breakout session on why the Ethics Commission cannot hold a Commission meeting because it only has two members and needs three for a quorum, and how the City Council made that not happen. But I made a little lemonade by attending the Ethics session, which could have been accomplished just as well with an online video. But it is useful for you and me to know that you can get to their online portal by clicking on

ethics.lacity.org and then clicking on the public data portal button. It was interesting to learn that the former mayor managed to get donors to come up with $57 million for his favorite charity.

There was also an excellent session titled All of Us: Raising civic participation in Los Angeles through the neighborhood councils and hosted by Dr Quintus Jett. It was an interactive session about how to generate interest in neighborhood councils and their activities, and mentioned findings such as the fact that people with ties to the community are amongst the more productive when you look for people to get community work done.

By the way, a few of us were actively distributing our Neighborhood Council Declaration of Rights, which you have seen previously in these pages. We also had a chance to talk to quite a few people who are CityWatch readers.

My basic critique of the congress (besides it not giving me what I asked for in terms of breakout sessions) was the essentially conservative banality of it all. I asked for sessions where we could explore real changes in city government such as abolishing the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Instead, we got the sort of stuff where government agencies told us how to behave. I can tell you that I didn't hear anything about how to talk back to government, but I did hear about how to make myself over in their image.

The congress planners spent a lot on meals. Lunch was kind of a disaster. The line was about half an hour long, and the food was ladled out, ever so slowly, one dish at a time. Here's my suggestion for next time. Let's have a 200-gallon pot of chili and a dozen ladles. Let people ladle their own food, and everybody could be fed in 10 minutes. The planners seem to be obsessed with whether anybody is going to take seconds. There is a different way.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)


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