A Road Map to Neighborhood Council Power

THE CITY - I’ve said it so many times that I’m getting tired of listening to myself … with a bit of organization, and little or no cost, neighborhood councils could become the most powerful force in city government.

Three things need to be done.

The first one is improving the public’s ability to participate.

Presently, the only way to participate in the business of neighborhood councils and city government is by attending meetings, unless you can afford a lobbyist.

This makes participation exceedingly difficult.  Most people would have to find a babysitter or take a vacation day, and find transportation in order to get to the meeting.  As a result, the City Council finds itself listening to a regular collection of gadflies and getting frustrated.

But this is the 21st century.  We have the Internet, an instrument that has toppled governments, and is powerful enough to be banned in others.

Last week an article in the Los Angeles Times about the trade of Steve Nash to the Lakers caused over 100 people to post comments on the newspaper’s website within hours.  During election time, editorials can generate over 1,000 comments.  

But how many of those people would offer their thoughts if they had to be at the Times’ downtown offices at the same time?

It only takes one person using free programs to create a place on the Internet where local and citywide issues could be listed and discussions held.  People wouldn’t be limited in the number of comments they could make, and there could be real back-and-forth discussions.

The key is that a few people would be needed to moderate the site in order to keep out the ranters and off-topic folks who have made so many other sites unpleasant and unproductive places.

The moderators could encourage experts to provide facts, answer questions, and respond to legitimate comments in order to create a fertile environment where ideas could grow.

A mayor who embraced participatory democracy and valued the public’s expertise would direct his or her department heads to engage in the conversations so that information, and often misinformation, isn’t just coming from the public.

This would make it immeasurably easier for people to participate.  People would have a meaningful opportunity to be heard.  

As President Obama did at the start of his term, the site could include a place where the public could list issues they felt should be addressed by government and the neighborhood councils.  And other visitors to the site could pick the most important ones.  

A public ranking of its own priorities would allow wacky ideas to sink to the bottom.

City hall officials could create such a place, but don’t count on it.  Involving the public in their decision-making process isn’t high on any of their agendas because they fear losing a part of their ability to control the narrative.  They would find themselves having to answer uncomfortable questions and be more accountable to the public.

Sadly, part of city government’s “brand” is that it’s the place to go to hear all the reasons why something can’t be done.  Those who want an excuse to discourage public participation fall back on the strictest interpretations of the state’s Brown Act.

This completely avoids the City Council’s ability to propose changes to the Brown Act that would modernize it for the Internet age.  A good starting point would be the local Sunshine Law that the Neighborhood Council Review Commission began developing.

Next column:  Step 2, giving people a reason to participate in neighborhood councils.

(Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was instrumental in the creation of the LA Neighborhood Council System, served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs …  and occasionally writes for CityWatch.He can be reached at gregn213@cox.net)

Tags: Greg Nelson, The City, neighborhood councils, empowerment, Los Angeles, Internet, politics

Vol 10 Issue 55
Pub: July 10, 2012