Here’s a Crazy Idea: What If Voters in Neighborhood Council Elections had to Live in the NC’s Boundaries?

GELFAND’S WORLD--This is going to be an optimistic column, but logic and good sense demand that it begin critically. The optimistic side is that a number of influential people such as Jay Handal are gradually coming around to the recognition that our neighborhood council elections are done all wrong and need to be fixed. The problem is that the opposition interests have become entrenched, and it's going to be a battle to get the problem solved. (Photo above: Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council ballots being sorted.) 

It's an uncommon day when Jay Handal and I agree, but this is one such day, and I intend to celebrate it. Jay has just finished a stint as director of this year's neighborhood council elections. He asked me a question that I will paraphrase here. 

"What would you think about changing neighborhood council elections so that we limit voting eligibility to just the people who live in each neighborhood council's district?" 

I've paraphrased because our actual conversation used terms such as stakeholder status and community interest stakeholder. We were referring to who gets the eligibility to vote. 

My response to Jay: "You're preaching to the choir. I've been arguing for years that neighborhood council privileges belong to the residents of the neighborhood council districts." OK, my actual answer was a little shorter, but this basically covers it. 

To explain why the current system is so bent, I will begin by referring you to the usual way that we elect people. It's very simple. To vote in your city council district, you have to live in your city council district. There are some other rules involving citizenship, among other things, but residence in the district is a requirement. Soldiers serving oversees and college students may vote as absentees, but their voting status depends on having a primary residence some place within the district. 

It works the same way for members of the Assembly and the state Senate. Each seat in the state legislature is defined by its own district, and the eligibility to vote also depends on having one's primary residence within the district. Thus I am a resident of a particular city council district, a particular district for my state Assemblyman, and yet another district for my state Senator. 

The main point I want to make here is that we accept the legitimacy of defining voting status according to geographical regions. I don't get to vote in the election for the senator from Ohio, and residents of Indianapolis don't get to vote in California elections. This is the way a representative democracy works. 

When it comes to neighborhood council elections here in Los Angeles, things are different. We have the geographic districts -- 96 of them -- and being a resident of a district automatically confers on you the right to vote in your council's election. So far so good. Los Angeles even takes neighborhood council residence a step further than all those other elections we just mentioned. The neighborhood council system was intentionally designed to bring the undocumented into the system, which means that U.S. citizenship is not a requirement to vote. As best I can tell, there is pretty much universal acceptance of neighborhood council participation by all residents, whether or not you were born here. The only limitation is on age. 

Had we created our neighborhood council rules in this limited form back when we started in 2001, we would have a system which fits nicely into my definition of what a neighborhood council is supposed to do, namely an organization where neighbors come together to discuss their concerns. Under that system, we would understand that everyone who participates at the voting level is a legitimate stakeholder because they are the people who live here. 

The original designers of the Charter amendment that brought neighborhood councils into existence weren't satisfied with creating a well defined system that would be effective at this level. They wanted to do more. They wanted each neighborhood council to include all the people who have some sort of legitimate stake in the community. They noticed that people who own property and even people who work in a district have some level of stake in the district. They wanted to bring all these extra people into the system. 

So the drafters of the 1999 Charter amendment simply added to the eligibility rules the words works or owns property to the definition, in addition to lives in the district. It has some superficial logic at an incredibly optimistic level, but I suspect that the drafters of the Charter language and the City Council representatives who wrote the enabling legislation weren't really thinking about human nature or political realities. Think about it -- businesses within a district don't necessarily have the same political and economic interests as the local homeowners. People who commute to a district in order to work there have still different interests. But somehow, throwing us all into the same pot and calling us stakeholders was supposed to lead not only to civilized discussion on mutual interests. It was somehow supposed to lead to the solving of conflicts among groups who come to the table with very much opposing interests. (Photo left: Silver Lake election.) 

The drafters of the Charter amendment must have been employing a rather fuzzy brand of thinking. All these businesses, homeowners, and salaried employees were apparently expected to find wonderfully crafted compromises. 

Then the city's elected officials took it a step further. It was argued that there are people who have a stake in each neighborhood council district who don't fit into the strictures of live, work, or own property. Proponents of this argument pointed out that people who attend church or synagogue in a particular district have their own stake in the district. People who are members of the Elks or the Rotary Club, or people whose children attend school in the district were viewed in the same way. The City Council has recently extended the original, already overly expansive, definition by adding the Community Interest Stakeholder. You can read through the definition of the CIS [] and figure out what the council reps were trying to achieve, even as you begin to figure out that there is no legitimate way to turn away anybody who wants to vote in a particular neighborhood council election. 

The CIS definition was supposed to be a tightened version of the previous add-on but experience has demonstrated that it's really no better. How could an election official determine that somebody who claims a substantial and ongoing participation really isn't participating in way that is that substantial or ongoing? When the City Council wrote this language, they (pick your metaphor here) washed their hands of an irritating problem or kicked the can down the road. What the City Council did not do was to write a clear, unambiguous definition, something like resides within the district. Admittedly, that level of change would involve placing the item on the ballot as a change in the city's Charter, but that is something that the City Council can do, and this would be the kind of change that should pass easily. 

Instead, the city's elected officials have left the rest of us, the volunteer neighborhood council participants, to clean up their logical trash. The current term for this kind of thinking is believing in unicorns

As described here previously, the recent harbor area neighborhood council elections were opened to anyone and everyone who claimed membership in any of several Face Book organizations. We saw voters from our own districts and from other places. One guy who is the founder of one of those Face Book organizations got elected to the governing board, even though he doesn't even live in the district he is supposed to represent. 

There are multiple problems with this sort of expansive definition of stakeholder status. First, it dilutes the authority of residents over their own decision making process. Second, it allows for an outside group to take over a nearby neighborhood council. Third and worst, it creates a system in which the election authorities do not have specific criteria to decide whether or not a self-proclaimed voter should be considered to be a legitimate stakeholder -- and therefore a lawful voter. 

A change may be on the way. A number of people who were involved in the writing of the Charter amendments and who were involved in the first years of the neighborhood council system are at least willing to take a second look. They are thinking about how things might have been had they originally gone with a stakeholder definition that was limited to living within a particular neighborhood council district. We all understand that this limitation would slightly reduce participation in some neighborhood councils, but it would improve on several perennial difficulties: 

1) It would reduce arguments over elections and electoral eligibility almost to zero. 

2) It would cause the public and our elected officials to view the neighborhood councils as the legitimate representative bodies in their districts. This is not always the case under the current system. 

So there we were, Jay Handal and I, two people who go back to the beginning of the system. We've both participated in the design of neighborhood council elections, we've both done volunteer work in running elections, and here we are, fifteen years into the experiment. And we both agree that amending the Charter to define stakeholder status by residence would make the system more honest and more workable. I suspect that there are a lot more people who would agree with this viewpoint if they are willing to think about it.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at