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The Defenestration of the Neighborhood Council System

NEIGHBORHOODS LA-(Note: de·fen·es·tra·tion: the action of throwing someone or something out of a window."death by defenestration has a venerable history") Those of us who have worked for large bureaucracies know that the fastest way to kill off a rogue group is to bury them in bs and tie them up in rules and regulations.  It seems to me that the City of Los Angeles (Mayor, City Council, City Attorney, BONC, DONE etc.) are doing one bang up job of accomplishing this goal. 

Remember, the creation of the Neighborhood Council system was the product of fear and loathing – Mayor Riordon and the political establishment of LA City were terrified that the Valley Succession movement would be successful and demolish their cozy little power structure.  

So, first we wind up with two, not one, Commissions to look into having neighborhood councils as a sop to the governed, and on top of that the bureaucracy foists the attempt off on LAFCO, to duck, bob & weave so that the vote can’t succeed. For the uninitiated, LAFCO stands for Local Agency Formation Commission, and is California’s county by county agency designed to cripple the attempts of anyone to break away from the status quo. 

The end result of all of these machinations was – Establishment 1, Succession 0, with this funny little residual thing called Neighborhood Councils in the 1999 City Charter revisions.  Nobody knew what it meant, and the original Ordinance (#174006) was not that clear either. 

The purpose of the NC System was spelled out in both the Charter 

 Sec. 900.  Purpose.   

      To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs, a citywide system of neighborhood councils, and a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is created.  Neighborhood councils shall include representatives of the many diverse interests in communities and shall have an advisory role on issues of concern to the neighborhood. 

… and the Ordinance 

       WHEREAS, the goals and objectives of the Neighborhood Council sys­tem are to: promote public participation in City governance and decision-making processes so that government is more responsive to local needs and requests and so that more opportunities are created to build partnerships with govern­ment to address local needs and requests ...              

 From these two statements you can tell that the citizens of Los Angeles didn’t trust their government and wanted this new system to get more people involved in trying to keep them honest.  Honest. 

When Greg Nelson was hired as the General Manager of DONE, the initial round of Neighborhood Councils was pretty much the wild, wild, West, with everyone going their own way and trying to figure out what worked for their Council.  

The semi-benevolent ‘who cares’ initial attitude of the City establishment changed radically, however, when some Neighborhood Council advocates actually started to get politically involved, and (gasp) fought against some of the more questionable and fiscally unsound policies of the City – for example, Land Use and Planning issues, which had always been the exclusive fiefdom of each of the Council members. 

Elected officials are not used to actually explaining the City Hall food chain of developer – Council Office – Planning & Land Use Committee (a PLUM indeed) – Planning Commission – Go Ahead and Build It.  Indeed, although almost all PLUM Committee actions continued to be prearranged and unanimous, believable explanations were increasingly hard to find. 

Then came Measure R, a truly Orwellian 2006 measure which was on the surface, about clean government and Ethics Reform, and in actuality was about extending term limits for LA City elected officials.  Many of the Neighborhood Councils reacted strongly, organized, and mounted a spirited campaign against this stellar example of legal fiction.  

It even got so nasty that the matter went all the way to the Court of Appeals on the issue of how blatant a lie is acceptable in a ballot measure (the answer from our judicial system is – anything goes), with a number of Neighborhood Council activists as named defendants.  And the League of Women Voters drummed yours truly out of their ranks for speaking out against their support of this turkey. 

Anyhow, thanks to a bunch of bucks from the usual City Hall insiders, the measure passed, but the elected officials now realized that the Neighborhood Councils were not going to be the quiet little echo chambers for the Council.  I believe that issue was the turning point in the Mayor/City Council’s attitude towards Neighborhood Councils.  That, and the quixotic formation of a group called Clean Sweep LA, largely with Neighborhood Council activists, who wanted to sweep out the City Hall insiders (and were crushed like a bug in the ensuing elections). 

Just in case City Hall hadn’t gotten the message, when an ill-advised and questionable Proposition B was put on the ballot in 2009, a solar panel initiative largely sponsored by its main beneficiary –  DWP’s IBEW Local 18 – Neighborhood Council advocates again swung into action and the measure was actually defeated (50.5% to 49.5%).  It was a landmark event, since the opponents had donated all of $1500 vs. the proponents $267,000.  

Moving past all of these events, let us flash forward to the post-Greg Nelson, post-Measure R & Proposition B, post-Clean Sweep Neighborhood Council system.  As a part of Charter Reform, there was a provision for a 5 Year Evaluation of the NC System, and another Blue-Ribbon group called the Neighborhood Council Review Commission, which issued a Report in 2007.  The only practical change that came out of this exercise was that Neighborhood Council Elections were taken away from DONE and given (along with the funding) to the City Clerk, where the Council has infinitely more control. 

And so the march to neutralizing the Neighborhood Council system began.  Without going into too much boring detail, the net current result is: 

After barely surviving an attempt by Mayor Villaraigosa to eliminate DONE as a Department in 2011, the budget and staffing of DONE has been significantly cut; there are currently less than ½ of the 52 staff that the Department once had, although there are more Neighborhood Councils (almost 100) to support. 

As a corollary, the movement to have the City bureaucracy impose top down one size fits all decrees to the Neighborhood Councils has grown.  We now have BONC making unilateral policies which are imposed on all the Neighborhood Councils, including amendment of the different Neighborhood Council Bylaws without so much as a ‘by your leave’.  

BONC also evidently believes that they can stifle the kind of vigorous discourse contemplated by the Charter through the imposition of a ‘Code of Civility’. We now have the City Attorney telling Neighborhood Council Board members that they are City Employees, even though they clearly are not, and we have the City Attorney taking items off of NC Board Agendas with no statutory authority to do so.  And we have DONE staff going out to Neighborhood Councils individually and in groups to tell them how it’s going to be under the guise of ‘best practices’ 

In short, from the beginnings of the Charter and the Neighborhood Council system until now, we are reaching an  upside down reality where Neighborhood Councils are actively crippled, and authority flows from those same people the Charter wanted us to watch downward into telling Neighborhood Councils what to do.  


{module [862]} {module [662]} 


 

Just look at how many Neighborhood Councils have been put in “Exhaustive Measures” for questionable reasons.  Exhaustive Measures?  Sounds to me like a cross between Purgatory and ‘Do Not Resuscitate’.  

Or look at how many election objections, issues, grievances and the like have simply been swept under the table in this year’s NC Elections. 

To me the real question is – especially as institutional memories disappear in the Neighborhood Council System – what are we going to do about it?  If the Neighborhood Councils simply become an echo chamber for City Hall, who needs them. Or, figuratively … let’s toss them out the window!

 

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)

-cw

 

 

 

CityWatch

Vol 12 Issue 65

Pub: Aug 12, 2014