Mon, May

Rethinking Charter Reform: Neighborhood Councils and the Appointment of a New GM for LA's D.O.N.E.


GELFAND’S WORLD - The City of Los Angeles has a government that is defined by its written Charter, a document which has been likened to the city's version of a constitution. You can find the current version here. Why bring this issue up now? 

The answer is that a number of people have been pushing for a new round of what is colloquially referred to as "Charter reform." This is an effort to write Charter amendments which will be placed before the voters of Los Angeles for ratification. The last time this happened was 1999. Amendments were passed by the voters which were intended to make the mayor's office stronger, dilute the ability of the City Council to engage in mischief, and to create a system of neighborhood councils. 

Whatever else the assorted amendments accomplished, the addition of Section 9 to the Charter, creating the neighborhood council system, has stimulated the most discussion, debate, and -- if I may say so -- outright whining. There are sound and solid reasons for some of the whining, but what is really needed is a solid analysis of Section 9 so that, if amended, it can be made into a document that leads to a neighborhood council system that results in improved government. 

Remember that point -- that the proper purpose of a neighborhood council system is improved government, something which today's elected officials have either forgotten or opposed outright. 

In order to get reform right, the neighborhood council system needs to be looked at from all perspectives. I hope to do so over the next weeks and months, in the hope that the discussion going on here will eventually affect the Charter reform process. Please feel free to write me directly and offer your own thoughts as to the proper evolution of the neighborhood council system. 

In the meantime, allow me to point out one example where the Charter does not serve the neighborhood council system well. That example is timely, as the discussion below will make clear. 

We are talking about the appointment -- just a few days ago -- of a new General Manager for the city agency known as the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE). 

Along the way we may discover other questions, such as, "Has Los Angeles become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party?" And to add levity to the inquiry, we might also ask, "Is that a bad thing?" 

Let's do one paragraph of setting our terms straight. The city government has lots of agencies and departments. You are probably familiar with the Sanitation Department, because the city needs to get its trash hauled away. You may be aware of departments that run the airport, the harbor, and the electric system, or if you are less fortunate, the department dealing with parking tickets. 

In any case, these departments each operate under the administration of a General Manager, or GM for short. This is city government language for the department head -- the equivalent of a CEO. Of course, each department is answerable to the mayor, because the GM is appointed (and can be fired) by the mayor. Think of it this way: The employees in the department work directly for the GM, and the GM works for the mayor. 

And this brings us to the complications of having a DONE at all, because its very existence works to damage the grand intentions of Charter Section 9. And -- it will follow -- it is therefore important that the appointment of a DONE GM is something that ought to be carried out in a different manner than the appointment of any other GM. 

Back in the mists of time -- 1999 that is -- the city was struggling with movements that were trying for valley secession and harbor secession. These movements were focused on a general frustration that the city government was far away, unaccountable, and ineffective. The City Council only had 15 members, each of whom functioned as a duke or duchess in the sense that you went to the city council office when your street needed repair, and you called the city council office if you were concerned about the criminal element hanging around on Main Street. 

Ineffective, distant, and rude -- that's how people viewed their city government. 

Along with Charter amendments to give the mayor a little more power, the Charter amendments of 1999 created a system of neighborhood councils. Or, to put it more precisely, the Charter amendment creating Section 9 created a system for creating the neighborhood council system. And that's where we are now. The new Charter language created a commission called The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) and a new city agency called the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE). 

The job originally assigned to DONE was to assist local organizing groups in creating neighborhood councils. DONE was the place you telephoned when you had some question about your new bylaws. It was the place that oversaw your efforts to become officially certified (by vote of the BONC). 

In short, DONE was supposed to be a government agency whose job was to help the newly formed neighborhood councils. You would think that the appointment of a General Manager for DONE should be carried out in consultation with the people -- us neighborhood council participants -- who have to deal with DONE's bureaucracy. That GM would, in an ideal system, work to help neighborhood councils to accomplish what we want, and would help us to deal with other elements of the city bureaucracy. 

Over the nearly 23 years of the neighborhood council system, we participants have learned many things about city governance. Unfortunately, one of the things we have learned is that the General Manager of DONE is not always our friend. Under mayor Villaraigosa, we were saddled with an acting GM who was downright hostile to our functioning. It was clear that the mayor had put her in place to take us down a peg. 

But the mayor doesn't even have to be hostile to do damage. Simple inattention is enough. Failure by the mayor's office to bring neighborhood council participants into the GM search is damaging by itself. 

And that is where we are as of now. Last week, the mayor announced the appointment of a new General Manager for DONE. To be blunt, none of us had ever heard of her. We know that her name is Carmen Chang, and that she has held various positions in the Democratic Party and in private (presumably nonprofit) organizations. We assume that she was interviewed by several people, but we were not among them. 

The appointment of the GM must be ratified by the City Council to become effective. The City Charter specifies a process for appointment and City Council ratification of General Managers, but that process was developed to apply to other sorts of GM appointments. It might make sense for the appointment of the Department of Water and Power GM to be a closely held thing where political capital is created and political debts are paid. I don't really agree with this point of view, but I can understand it. But when it comes to appointments which directly affect neighborhood council work, it is the wrong approach. 

The neighborhood council system has to be different from other city departments. For one thing, it exists to provide a counter to the excesses and mistakes of city government. 

Remember that the purpose of the neighborhood council system is also to bring government closer to the people. You would think that the appointment of a DONE GM is something that ought to be carried out in consultation with those of us who are working within that system. Instead, we get this appointment without consultation. We knew that the appointment was in the works, but that's pretty much it. 

Was this a faux pas by the new mayor? Let's put it this way -- the failure of consultation was not without trying on our part. We spoke to people on the mayor's staff and recited our concerns. And by "we," I mean lots of people. 

It may be that the new appointment is going to be a wonderful General Manager. It may be quite the opposite. But what the current situation tells us is that this style of making appointments is not the right system for working with neighborhood council participants. 

As to the next round of Charter reform, there are other questions -- should there even be a DONE at all? Is there some way to limit DONE's authority to make it less of an occupying army and more of what it was originally intended? Is there some way of creating influence among the neighborhood councils regarding DONE's failures? 

Whatever happens in the next round of Charter reform, these questions will be out front. 

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