The Ryu Plan for LA Neighborhood Council Reform Ignores the Elephants in the Room

GELFAND’S WORLD--Being appointed to chair the committee that oversees neighborhood councils is a rite of passage for newly elected City Council representatives.

It's not like being hazed as a rookie, but it can be close. 

There aren't a lot of perks -- it's not a power center like the Budget Committee or Public Works, and the new chair gets to listen to an endless stream of neighborhood council supplicants complaining and begging. At least that's how I remember the way it was in the old days under Janice Hahn. 

(The one exception to this rite of passage rule was when City Council veteran Bernard Parks ran afoul of the council's president and got stuck in that role for the remainder of his term in office. Parks, being smart and used to working hard (as former chair of the Budget Committee) brought focus to the neighborhood council subcommittee but wasn't in much of a position to enact reforms of substance.) 

With Councilman David Ryu (4th district), we have a new committee chair who brings both energy and a new perspective, namely his own experience of having served on a neighborhood council. Shortly after being elected, Ryu did a listening tour of neighborhood council regional alliances, where he invited comments and suggestions about how to improve the system. I can affirm from personal experience that the councilman listened to each of us in turn and stayed late. 

Out of this tour, and possibly with the aid of Council president Herb Wesson, Councilman Ryu has crafted a list of suggested modifications to the neighborhood council system. 

The motion in question can be found here 

The reform motion, to its credit, envisions changes to the City Charter, the document that is the ultimate authority over the whole system. Also to its credit, the proposal suggests a few changes that are either obvious or won't do much damage. For example, the very first proposal involves changing the names of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. I can't see why this is important, but it shouldn't do any harm. My recommendation to my own council on this element of the proposal was, "no objection." 

But what's interesting about this first proposal is that it begins with the words, "Recommendations and next steps for amending City Charter Article IX . . . " 

My view: If you are willing to take the City Council down the road of amending Article IX of the Charter, then this opens the door for making other Charter changes as well. 

Ryu and several of his City Council colleagues have signed onto the reform motion and are inviting public comment. We have at least until August 26 of this year to respond. 

I would like to put in my two cents on the proposals here. But first, I'd like to remind CityWatch readers that Tony Butka has already provided his thoughts.  

Let's lead off with the crux of the matter: This set of proposals is largely cosmetic, leaving long-term toxic issues to continue festering. There are two that are most important: (1) The proposal fails to deal with finality to the definition of stakeholder eligibility in neighborhood councils. The definition should be changed to include residents, and residents only, for each neighborhood council district. (2) The proposal fails to make any modifications that would give neighborhood councils real power, such as veto authority over City Council decisions. 

OK, we know that item (2) is a nonstarter for the City Council. Nobody voluntarily gives up power and authority (not counting George Washington), and we can't expect the Los Angeles City Council to do so. But at least we can take note of the inadequacies of this proposal. 

The Ryu proposals do include a first step towards reform of the stakeholder definition. There is a proposal to abolish the eligibility to vote as a "community interest stakeholder," a catch-all term that in practice makes it hard to disqualify almost any self-appointed voter, not matter how distant that person's relationship from the neighborhood council in question. It could be a start, but if the City Council is willing to propose changes to the City Charter, then why not go all the way and really fix the problem once and for all? 

On another note, Ryu's proposal also fails to create a system which would encourage smaller neighborhood councils to be created through the process of subdividing the existing councils. I've written about this before, so I won't labor the topic here. 

The proposal also fails to deal adequately with the subject of funding equity -- that is to say, the way that funding should be apportioned among neighborhood councils of vastly different populations. 

Most of the proposals are OK, but there is one that is really objectionable and one that is marginal 

I'm fine with the city making it easier for neighborhood councils to make use of available office space in otherwise unused city properties. Allowing neighborhood councils to roll over part of their funds from one year to the next is also a good idea. I'm not even all that concerned with the idea of holding all neighborhood council elections on the same day, provided that the city and its agencies do a decent job of explaining to LA residents in advance that neighborhood councils exist. 

So, what is it that I object to in this document? We'll start with the lesser of the two evils. The proposal provides for creating mandatory training in land use and planning for certain neighborhood council participants. I'm not against knowledge per se, and I'm certainly not opposed to the idea that chairs of important committee should understand the subject matter. But I do have a problem with the mandatory training notion, and I think there are good reasons for such caution. 

First, the history of the Los Angeles neighborhood councils (since 2002) shows that the city agency (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) and commission (Board of Neighborhood Commissioners) are not adequate at the art and science of instruction. As I've pointed out for the past dozen years, the city still hasn't figured out how to teach Roberts Rules to board members and neighborhood council presidents. And then, there is also the basic principle that we shouldn't have the city making legal demands on our time -- courts have the power to draft us for jury service, but since when does the City of Los Angeles get to make the same kind of demand on our volunteer representatives serving the public interest? 

To put it more simply, I believe that the choice of who gets seated on my neighborhood council's governing board belongs to the voters, and the right to evaluate their qualifications prior to the election is something for the voters themselves to decide. 

Now for the proposal I find most objectionable. Let me quote directly: 

"Recommendations and next steps for creating a one-time review process, overseen by the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, to evaluate Neighborhood Council bylaws to determine if board seats are equitably allocated amongst stakeholder types and provide formal suggestions to Neighborhood Councils on ways to adjust board seats as needed to increase equity." 

Let's start with the obvious question and the equally obvious answer: 

Are neighborhood council board seats equitably allocated? 

Clearly they are not. 

Again, this is something that yours truly and others have commented on for at least a decade. I refer to the problem as founder effects. At the beginning, a few people sat around a table and made compromises in which they wrote in arbitrary decisions -- "we'll create so many seats for homeowners, so many seats for business owners, so many seats for educators," and so forth. In so doing, the founders demonstrated their lack of trust in their own voting public to make informed and wise decisions as to who would participate on the governing board. 

Notice that the category choices typically omitted those with less formal education. You won't see a lot of board seats designated for auto mechanics or fishermen or hospital orderlies. 

A more truly democratic system does not put these arbitrary limitations on candidates for board seats. We don't have them for the City Council or the state legislature, so why have them for neighborhood councils? 

By the way, there are historical rationalizations for the current limitations, but they don't stand up to scrutiny if we are evaluating them as part of a system for choosing representatives in an open democratic process. 

All this having been said, there isn't much chance that a committee appointed by the BONC would challenge the current paradigm for board seat allocation. We are much more likely to see a strong defense of the status quo, just as we've seen with the recent Funding Equity Working Group debacle. A serious inquiry into how we got where we are now would be desirable. I don't think it can happen given the kind of appointments that the BONC has traditionally made. Boat rockers don't get put on such committees. 

Overall, this collection of proposals is basically an attempt to clean up some loose ends that have been bandied about (rolling over funds, use of city building spaces), giving power to BONC it has long since shown it shouldn't have, and a total failure to think big about giving the councils real power. 

My major request to Councilman Ryu and his colleagues is to put off further council or committee discussion until we've had a chance to take the matter up in public at the annual neighborhood council congress. That would only add a month to the 90-day window that was so generously offered. Councilman Ryu is invited to be a participant in our discussion.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)