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Tue, Jul

Neighborhood Council Dysfunction:  What to do about Private Community Councils Intensifies

AI generated drawing of a dysfunctional meeting.

GELFAND'S WORLD

GELFAND’S WORLD - A few months ago, one member of the City Council suggested a radical alteration in the way neighborhoods and the city government interact. The idea goes like this: A couple of parts of the city have what are called Community Councils. They are wholly independent, receive no money from the city, and are free to choose their own members and to take whatever political positions they choose. The City Councilman suggested that the city might treat such community councils the way it treats its official neighborhood councils -- that is to say, community council representatives would be given extra time to speak at City Council meetings and committee meetings -- time equal to what neighborhood councils already get. 

The neighborhood councils protested mightily, presumably because they were being asked to share in a special perk with people who are not among our number. The neighborhood councils offered reasons: neighborhood councils are officially required to open their doors to all comers, and to open the elections of their governing boards to everyone who lives in their district. The argument isn't compelling. A better argument would be that areas that use community councils should also have organizations that are open to all comers. The community councils could open their doors to everyone, or people could create their own neighborhood councils which would overlap the community councils. 

I've recently come to reconsider my original position, and I'm now wondering whether the city of Los Angeles might be better off by inviting private community councils into the area of government presently occupied by the neighborhood councils. Yes, it would be a hybrid sort of structure, but there are reasons for going in this direction. 

I base this viewpoint on what happened at a couple of neighborhood councils last week. In each case, shouting broke out, dysfunction was apparent, and the city agency that was originally tasked to assist neighborhood councils was ineffective in bringing peace to the proceedings. 

Strike One 

The first meeting where I saw turmoil was at the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council. It was under what anyone else would imagine to be the unlikeliest of circumstances. (See whether you can follow the next two sentences.) The committee that oversees the Port of Los Angeles was giving its report and wished to offer a modest change to a letter it proposed to write to the Port. This raised an objection from the chair, who pointed out that there was no text for the proposed letter in the document he was looking at, and that furthermore you have to provide proposed amendment language in advance. 

Or something like that. 

Each side offered technical arguments about rules and precedent that would have confused any member of the audience. (It certainly confused me.) 

Let's put some cards on the table. The real question ought to have been whether this neighborhood council needed to say something to the Port of Los Angeles, and if so, what should it be saying? A little polite discussion among people acting in good faith would have solved the issue. If need be, the entire board could have taken a vote as to where it wanted to go on the issue. 

Mind you, as an audience member I was entirely ignorant of what the issue was. Perhaps I could have found out by studying all the available documents, but it would have been a lot easier for either of the opponents to offer a one-sentence summary. 

Nope. That's not what happened. 

One proponent made several remarks calling into question the motives of the chair. Note that this is entirely improper under Roberts Rules, where it is called an "ad hominem" attack. 

Pretty soon, the proponents of the motion were standing and shouting at the chair, the chair was banging his gavel and -- in keeping with California law -- each of the shouters was ordered to leave the meeting. They collected their materials, left the board's table, and mingled in the audience. Under the law, they could have been ordered to leave the building, but nobody thought to mention it. 

My view from the audience was simple, and that the problem was obvious. None of the participants was knowledgeable enough about Roberts Rules to deal with the issues. In particular, nobody really knew how to demand that the rights of all participants be defended. And it wasn't just the maker of the Port Committee motion who had rights. The chair and the rest of the board had a right that their own rules be upheld, including the right to have a meeting without shouting and disruptions. 

It does not take that much training in the rules to handle such items, but for some reason, the city agencies that are supposed to be supportive of neighborhood councils are themselves ignorant of parliamentary procedure and have been entirely ineffective in explaining to our neighborhood councils how an effective meeting can occur. 

Strike Two 

This is the more interesting of the two shootouts, because it reveals a possible alternative to even having a neighborhood council, something that may finally be coming of age. 

Later in the week, there was a meeting of the North Hills West Neighborhood Council. I had visited the NHWNC around ten or twelve years ago when there was a schism on their board and some members were contemplating doing a mass resignation and walkout which would render the council unable to form a quorum. 

At that time, their full intent was to force the city to abolish the NHWNC completely. It was kind of like toddlers holding their breath, because the city already had a policy (new at the time) for returning a deficient board to full-quorum status. It's still on the books, and you can read it at the EmpowerLA.org website. 

These walkouts don't work if your intent is to force the city government to do your bidding. The city does not have to close down the neighborhood council. What the city does won't be efficient or even effective, but meetings will be held, and the council will continue to exist for the next year or more. The council will really exist in name only, but the city will be able to pretend that it is doing its job. 

But the Mass Resignation Was Not to Change the Neighborhood Council 

But what I learned by watching the proceedings on Thursday was that the group intent on resigning their board seats were not trying to impose any particular order or organization on the NHWNC board. They simply wanted their own freedom back. 

That seems like a strange thing to say. Neighborhood councils are supposed to be representative of the people, and therefore among the fundamental elements of democratic freedom. 

But we're not talking about the right to hear from our constituents and to speak truth to power over issues of civic concern. We always had that power. 

We're talking about the freedom from being badgered and abused and exploited by the lower levels of city government -- by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) through their increasing and irrational demands for more unpaid work and more unpaid training on our part, even as the City Council acts more and more to the detriment of city residents. We're talking about the requirement that neighborhood council board members sit politely and listen as they are abused by one of their fellow board members, and when they attempt to fix things by something as simple as censuring that fellow board member, the city throws wrenches into the gears. 

I interviewed a number of people and found that there were two distinct sides. Each side sincerely detests the other. There are charges and countercharges. But one thing became crystal clear: A lot of stakeholders and board members had already stopped participating due to the turmoil. Most expressed their distaste for one individual board member who was known for voting No on most things (I see that as his right, and nothing to be criticized for doing) but was also known for being rather sour and negative in his remarks. In particular, he is known for questioning the motives of his fellow board members. This sort of ad hominem attack is of course forbidden under Roberts Rules. 

And Once Again We See Where the Problem Lies 

Way back in the beginning of the neighborhood council system, the management at DONE was negative about imposing Roberts Rules as a standard. As the former General Manager explained, the problem with Roberts Rules was that typically, only one person would know the rules, and would use his knowledge to lord it over everyone else. This is of course logically fallaceous. In the absence of a known rule structure, the group muddles its way along, making up rules as it sees fit, and typically bows to the edicts of the elected chair. One predictable result is the twin blowups I saw at Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council and at the North Hills West Neighborhood Council. 

Opposing sides, rather than working through their differences on a level playing field, get into arguments over rules that don't exist and over procedures that remain murky. 

What I've noticed is that this kind of organizational structure selects for a kind of paranoid mentality among opposing factions. They just don't trust other people to act in good faith, and they can never predict how the chair of the meeting will deal with any one dispute. 

Yes, we have a structural disorder in the neighborhood council system because there is a failure to communicate the need for a rules structure, and this disorder leads, all too often, to the sort of paranoid distruct of other participants that I saw last week. 

Worse yet, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners and DONE have failed completely in helping the neighborhood councils because they concentrate on outcome based rules-making (the idiotic Code of Conduct) rather than teaching all our councils a procedure that is known to be effective. 

So, it was of interest to chat with the newly freed former-board-members of North Hills West Neighborhood Council. They were positively joyful that they would not have to deal with DONE or their board nemesis ever again. They seemed interested in having an organization that could represent their neighborhood interests, and they were particularly interested in developing some sort of community council in which they could limit the naysaying and the negativity. This doesn't sound unreasonable to me, so it finally comes down to whether City Councilman Lee will invite their input the same way he would invite input from the North Hills East Neighborhood Council. 

In considering the situation as it currently exists, I had a couple of thoughts to share with the BONC and with DONE. The standard approach available to DONE would be to schedule a special board meeting to add members to the board and thereby create a new quorum. The other approach would be for DONE to place NHWNC in what is called "exhaustive efforts," which is a misnamed procedure under which DONE takes over the operation of the council, discusses needed bylaws fixes, and ultimately brings the council back into existence. My view is that exhaustive efforts is a bad procedure and should be avoided. The best procedure would be for DONE to engage in the minimum that is legally required and then advise the BONC to decertify the NHWNC. This would allow for an interim period in which the residents could think about what they have learned and propose a brand new council based on a set of bylaws that will work for them. 

But in the meanwhile, we ought to be welcoming the new community council. 

There is one additional merit to creating a new community council in North Hills West. This council would join Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades in being effective but free and independent. It would be a signal to other neighborhood councils that the community council model is available for them to adopt. It would also be a signal to DONE, the BONC, and to the Los Angeles City Council that there is a limit to what they can try to impose upon us, and that we are already at that limit. 

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