Take Back Our Neighborhood Councils, LA … A Five Step Plan

EASTSIDER-One of my recent CityWatch articles spoke about the sad state of the Neighborhood Council System and what we can learn from Airbnb’s defeat of Prop F in San Francisco. Some of my respected NC friends said, “Okay, we agree with your analysis, but where are y our recommendations as to how to actually fix this mess?” Well, they’ve asked, so read on. 

Shortly after my piece appeared, the City Council failed to back the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council’s effort to prevent their patently illegal removal from city-owned offices by CM Filipe Fuentes (CD7.) Then, kicking them while they were down, Council President Herb Wesson orchestrated a slick agenda switch -- enabling City Council to vote to approve Fuentes’ motion evicting Sunland Tujunga – before the folks from that Neighborhood Council could even speak! 

There’s some pretty clear proof that BONC is useless.  Add to this, Bob Gelfand’s shocking revelation about direct and illegal control of a recent Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council meeting by DONE staff – and it seems indisputable that the Mayor, Herb Wesson and the LA City Council, and even BONC and DONE could care less about the rule of law that the Charter lays out in regard to the Neighborhood Council System. 

Enough is enough. Here is my Five Step Plan to take back our neighborhood councils from City Hall.  (Fair Warning - I went to UC Berkeley in the 60’s and understand the Saul Alinsky School of Organizing!) 

1) Ignore BONC 

Outside of providing a few unpaid part-time jobs for some wannabe politicians, BONC has proved utterly bankrupt. It also seems clear that they have no real legal authority to enforce any of the silly rules they’ve been passing. So let’s call their bluff and simply ignore them. What are they going to do? Decertify Neighborhood Councils? If they even dare to do that, we’re probably better off with direct citizen action anyway. 

2) Ignore the City Attorney 

I spent a good chunk of my life dealing with public sector Boards and Commissions, so let me share the truth about how a real City Attorney’s Office should be advising Boards. The attorney may attend Board meetings (usually at the request of the Board,) and if asked, may provide legal advice to them. 

If the body does not ask for it, the attorney has no cause to provide unsolicited legal advice; it has absolutely no right to tell a Board or Commission what they must do. The attorney can tell the appointed body that if they act against the attorney’s advice, they will be acting against the advice of counsel. As a result, the board or commission members could be held personally liable for their actions in the event of successful litigation

That’s it. Neighborhood Council boards are not like the other City boards and commissions that are appointed by the Mayor. LA’s Neighborhood Councils have only advisory authority, so the odds of anyone actually being held liable are about as remote as the odds of the Herb Wesson City Council behaving in an ethical and transparent manner. 

3) Don’t Waste Time on Community Impact Statements 

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this “right” for Neighborhood Councils to provide Community Impact Statements has turned out to be a gigantic waste of time and energy which could be devoted to something more meaningful. 

Unless you believe in the tooth fairy – or actually agree with the Councilmember on a particular issue – you will find that these elected officials could care less about your Community Impact Statements. 

 And they’ve already figured out a whole bunch of ways to frustrate any ability of the NCs to even file them in a timely manner, such as holding quick early morning meetings to approve a recommendation that will be rubber-stamped later the same day in a unanimous Council vote. Another tactic is adding a “-1” or “-S” to a file, turning it into a new file requiring a new Community Impact Statement. 

The Councilmembers know that under the BONC and DONE rules, it takes a minimum of one or two months for an NC to vote and weigh in. So Council ends up using the rules they have created for their own purposes. 

When it comes to land use issues, the only thing the City Council and the Mayor understand is being successfully sued by outside groups. And then of course, they have to ask the City Attorney to hire outside attorneys to defend them against us, using our tax dollars. (Witness the Millennium Project, or what is still happening with the Old Spaghetti Factory.) Often, how these elected officials react to lawsuits depends on whether they will be termed out before the Appeals Courts finally rule against the City. 

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4) Stop Subsidizing City Entities with your NC Treasury 

This one has always been a sore spot for me. Not only has the City cut back on the funds they provide Neighborhood Councils, but they are constantly inventing new ways to get the NCs to give their money back to City Departments and other entities that supposedly are already funded by tax dollars. But what about the thing called the Budget? 

But no, they expect us to pay for Apple One, pay rent after they throw us out of City owned office space and bear the cost of our mandated elections. They also expect us to help fund projects and requests from deliberately underfunded Departments like Parks and Rec, the Library, the LAPD, and, well…fill-in-the-blank. 

An important guiding principle for City government should be, if you want to fund something -- put it in your annual budget. Don’t try andfinesse the Neighborhood Councils by having them recycle some of their taxpayer-provided money to help you fund your wish list. Besides, Councilmembers have a heck of a lot more dollars in their “discretionary funds” than any NC has in its budget. And remember, the Charter requires support for the Neighborhood Council System and the Plan.  

So here’s what should be done with the NC money: 

5) Spend Every NC Dollar on Outreach and Organizing Your Community 

Here’s where the rubber hits the road, folks. The Charter says we should organize and activate our communities to provide a check and balance on a political system that is inherently corrupt and untrustworthy. 

The more people we can reach by any means, the merrier. In most Council Districts, less than 10 percent of the citizens actually vote to put the Councilmembers into office. And that vote is pretty much of the “one dollar, one vote” variety: The process is devoted to high-priced political consultants, voter suppression and targeted micro-ads, as the politicians get on their knees to beg for the big bucks from donors and bundlers. It should come as no surprise that elected officials dance to the tune of those who got them there. 

There is only one way to change this system -- get more people involved. 

We actually have some very cool advantages. For one thing, we’re not limited to targeting that limited pool of registered voters who actually vote -- we have the Ordinance definition of “stakeholder” as “...those who live, work, or own property in the neighborhood, and also to those who declare a stake in the neighborhood as a community interest stakeholder, defined as a person who affirms a substantial and ongoing participation within the Neighborhood Council’s boundaries, and who may be in a community organization, such as, but not limited to, educational, non-profit and/or religious organizations.” [Quote from the DONE Elections Manual] 

We also have a tool that the City Council doesn’t have: online voting. For the Neighborhood Councils that decided to give it a try, good for you! This method has the potential to totally transform how many people vote in Neighborhood Council elections. It should scare the bejesus out of our elected officials. 

If we gather all the time, energy and money that we save by ignoring an unresponsive and inherently fixed political system…if we go out and get more than 10 percent of our communities involved in Neighborhood Council elections…we will have involved more people than the monied interests did when they got the current crop of elected officials elected. 

By the way, a time-out hats off to Jay Handel and his merry band who are now overseeing the 2016 NC Elections. He’s been a champion of outreach for years and deserves some recognition. 

A note about outreach: The issues may be different in different neighborhoods, but the attitudes toward City Hall and our elected officials is remarkably similar. People don’t participate mostly out of disgust and a belief that it doesn’t matter what they think. Give them some hope. Reach out to everyone – homeowners, renters, permanently under or unemployed people, “freelance economy” people, millennials, hipsters, old folks, ethnic groups, church folks, and every other constituency that I have failed to mention. 

I guarantee this: The day we can get more people to vote in a Neighborhood Council election than vote in a City Council District election, is the day that our elected officials will stop blowing us off. Maybe then, they’ll be ready to listen and behave. 

Think about it. If we reach out to 10,000 to 20,000 community stakeholders, by any means possible in the election process, we will have developed a community database of people who may become more active in LA City politics. We will also learn from them about their real issues, not just the ones pontificated by Councilmembers. 

Remember, the Neighborhood Council System did not happen because it was a “good idea.” It was a direct result of the Valley Secession movement that was growing despite all the impediments and internal difficulties that the professional politicians were able to generate. 

The Alternative 

Of course we can keep the same old system -- where there is too little turnover in too many of our Neighborhood Councils, where the same old folks become junior grade subsidiaries of the elected officials, often feathering their own nests and selling out for some ego-boosting chump change. 

But do we really want a system that sees the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council thrown out of their city digs without even being allowed to talk to the City Council? Or where non-profits get grant money to control Neighborhood Councils on behalf of elected officials and where those who speak out are victimized and muzzled as they are in Boyle Heights and LA32? 

How about a system where tax revenue to the City coffers trumps building codes and zoning, allowing our neighborhoods to be systematically destroyed in the name of development? Do we really want a system where too many newcomers to Neighborhood Councils take one look and walk away in frustration or disgust? 

So, in closing…why not give my Five Step Plan a shot? It can’t be worse than what we have now. 

It seems to me that more and more Angeleno’s are disenchanted --- speaking out loudly and publically against “business as usual” in Los Angeles city government. Let’s give them something to do that’s positive for a change.


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




Vol 13 Issue 94

Pub: Nov 20, 2015