THE VIEW FROM HERE - I joined the conspiracy in the early summer of the year 2000. There were about half a dozen of us sitting around a table in an old wooden building off of Gaffey Street in San Pedro. There was a future city commissioner, the leader of a homeowners group, and several future founders of the city's first neighborhood councils.
In modern parlance, we would be known as a neighborhood council organizing committee. We didn't think of ourselves as a conspiracy, and we opened our doors to anyone and everyone. But in practice, we could just as well have been a secret cabal, since the effect of our deliberations was to create special interest power structures that characterize many of the neighborhood councils that eventually came into existence.
More importantly, those special interests and the structures that keep them in power have not been subjected to review or ratification by the large numbers of people who have to live under them.
I call this problem "Founder Effects." In essence, it refers to the fact that the Los Angeles neighborhood councils are a crazy quilt of different structures, each originally determined by a small group of founders. Some gave special privileges to business interests and religious organizations. Others concentrated much of their power in specially chosen homeowners' areas. A few are openly democratic in the way they elect their governing boards.
Back in the year 2000, our group of founders was pretty homogeneous. We lived in the harbor area, which lacks fabulously wealthy areas but also is relatively short on skid row type regions. We lived in apartments or modest single family homes, and we were in the income class that ranges from lower middle class to middle-middle class.
In short, we came from a fairly narrow range in terms of residence, income, and culture. This being the harbor, there were differences. We lived in an area that has many ethnic groups, including traditionally minority populations as well as people whose ancestors came over from central and eastern Europe, but overall, the region has a distinctly working class feel to it, without huge differentials from one side to the other. If you had been an observer back then, you probably would have expected, as did I, that all of the local neighborhood councils would turn out pretty much the same.
Not so much.
If you listened to the people who held governmental power at the time, you would have heard explanations of how they intended things to turn out. They liked to point out that the system envisioned in the city's Charter was written with flexibility, because (to quote Greg Nelson's aphorism), "one size doesn't fit all."
The City Council, through the enabling ordinance (also known as "The Plan"), invited us to invent our own boundaries as well as the kinds of governing boards we would choose and how we would choose them. Supposedly, this would allow our different neighborhoods to design our local neighborhood councils to the particular needs and eccentricities of our specific regions.
In practice, it allowed founder groups to exercise arbitrary power over who would ultimately hold authority in the neighborhood councils that were yet to come.
The evidence for this can be seen in the first two neighborhood councils ever to be officially certified by the city of Los Angeles. They are barely five or six miles apart geographically, and were founded by the same people who sat around that table on Gaffey Street. Yet the results couldn't be more dissimilar.
The first neighborhood council to be certified was Wilmington's. If you look up its bylaws, you will find a complicated system which gives governing board preference to churches (2 seats out of 23), businesses (3 seats), education (2 seats), and something called resident organizations (6 seats), with a number of other interests given 1 seat apiece -- labor, the Port of Los Angeles, seniors, and different non-profit organizations. These 20 special interest seats are supposed to be chosen by caucuses, although it remains something of a mystery even now how those caucuses organize themselves or are subject to the popular will.
It's curious that the founders of the Wilmington Neighborhood Council chose these particular categories. If you look carefully, you will notice a strongly white collar bias as well as a bias towards social welfare organizations. What you won't find is a set of board seats for auto mechanics, pizza delivery drivers, the unemployed, or those in the healing professions.
The Wilmington Neighborhood Council does allow one small stab at a wider democracy by opening 3 of its board seats to members of the community who are elected at large. According to the Wilmington Neighborhood Council bylaws, elections are held every two years.
By contrast, the second neighborhood council to come into existence (officially certified at the same meeting of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners) is altogether different. The Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council elects its entire board at large each year.
Between Wilmington and Coastal San Pedro, there are 2 other councils, which seem to have split the difference between the extreme democracy of Coastal San Pedro and the extreme lack of democracy of Wilmington. The Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council originally organized itself in a hybrid system but later modified its bylaws to resemble those of Coastal San Pedro.
The Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council divides its board seats in still a different way. Out of 17 board seats, 8 are elected from census tracts -- these board members have to live or own property in one of four different tracts, which means that in practice, the NWSPNC board is almost by definition going to have a majority of homeowners in most years. Like it or not, it has to be recognized that this kind of electoral structure results in a less heterogeneous ethnic and racial mix than opening a large number of seats to at-large voting.
The rest of the board includes 2 business seats, 2 ngo seats, and 1 school seat. NWSPNC also allows for 3 board members to be elected at large.
How do these structural differences matter?
Let's imagine you live on one side or the other of the street that divides the two neighborhood councils, NWSPNC on the one side and CSPNC on the other. Let's also suppose you are interested enough in participating that you would like to run for a seat on a governing board. I would like to suggest that if you live on the CSPNC side of the street, your chance of winning election is much better than if you live on the NWSPNC side. It's simple math. It's a lot easier to finish anywhere in the top 17 places than it is to finish in the top 3, which is what you will have to do if you try to get elected to one of those 3 at-large seats in NWSPNC. You could also try to run for one of the regional seats, where you have to finish either first or second.
On the other hand, if you live over in Wilmington, it's anybody's guess how you might do, considering the fact that most seats (87 percent to be precise) relate to specific interest groups and are chosen by caucuses. And since the bylaws do not refer to synagogues or mosques or Hindu temples, but to churches, there is a built-in discriminatory factor right there. Perhaps the Wilmington group means something a little broader when it uses the word "churches," but that's the term that the WNC bylaws contains.
Beyond the question of electoral success or failure for candidates to the various governing boards, there are other important differences. It should be obvious that when the founders stack the board in favor of specific interests, that is the kind of representation you will get. It's not obvious to me that the residents of Wilmington really prefer their kind of neighborhood council structure. They didn't have the opportunity of voting yes or no in a district-wide plebiscite. Rather, their organizing committee did what it was required to do in order to qualify for certification under the law, and the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners duly ratified them. There didn't seem to be a lot of concern about the caucus system at the time, or, in particular, the arbitrary way that business got triple the number of seats as labor, or that one government entity was automatically guaranteed a seat on the board.
I've gone on at some length about this relatively small part of the city that I live in, but that's just because I know it. I was present at the founding of these councils, and I've seen the differences that resulted from the founder effects.
If you were to look at any other group of neighborhood councils in the city of Los Angeles, you would find analogous differences. One council will work from a mainly at-large philosophy, while its immediately adjacent neighbor will be entirely different.
And curiously enough, the founders of each and every one will defend their choices as being particularly appropriate to their specific regions, in spite of the fact that they are right across the street from one another.
As I have mentioned a couple of times already, there is one thing that is missing. It's the consent of the governed. Wilmington has a population of slightly over fifty thousand people. The Coastal San Pedro district is about twenty-seven thousand people. In neither case have the residents been allowed to vote on the structures of the neighborhood councils that presume to represent them, even though we have elections for everything from bond issues to school board representatives.
I will defend the structure of my home group, CSPNC, because it would be hard to create a more open or democratic system. Still, when it came to filing the papers asking the city to certify us, there were only 3 signatures on the application. The future city commissioner was one signer, and I was another. It's true that we also had to file a petition with a few hundred signatures along with the application form, but asking people to support the formation of a neighborhood council is a lot different than asking them to choose among different ways of organizing and structuring such a council.
I would be the first to agree that some neighborhood council organizing committees did a pretty good job. In those cases, the founder effects were benevolent rather than pernicious. But others didn't do such a good job, leading to councils that are representative of their districts in name only. Is there a remedy?
It's not necessary to rebuild the whole system, but the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners might consider inviting local groups to review and reconsider their original designs, much as the BONC is currently reviewing the city's enabling ordinance ("The Plan") in the hopes of correcting some of its weaknesses. Perhaps each neighborhood council should take a long, slow look at itself on its tenth and fifteenth anniversaries, with the intent of correcting flaws that were incorporated in haste at their founding.
(Bob Gelfand is a founding member of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council who writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
Vol 11 Issue 23
Pub: Mar 19, 2013