Thu, Jun

2016 NC Congress Sizzles! A Pleasant Surprise!


MY TURN-I approached the 6th Annual 2016 Congress of Neighborhoods with a certain amount of skepticism. I had been to the five previous ones, and had been a speaker and co-program chair, so I found myself rather irritable about giving up a Saturday to drive downtown to Los Angeles City Hall. 

As a cheerleader as well as a critic at large, today's article allows me to wear both hats. There was an awful lot of good at this year’s Congress and admittedly I was surprised. I expected it to be the same BS from the Mayor and Politicos; the same workshops presented by speakers, some of whom are very good, but most are mediocre or poor. This time, I didn't attend enough of the workshops and seminars to determine the ratio of good and bad. Evaluations were given by participants but who knows if they will be shared. (Photo above: participants look through information and maps and provide park priorities for their neighborhoods.) 

I'm not going to discuss the logistics of the event other than to say there was plenty of excellent graphic signage showing you how to navigate the labyrinth of corridors and elevators. And there were plenty of volunteers giving directions to the mobs of people. No matter how many times you go there, the Los Angeles City Hall location is impressive. 

The first time I visited City Hall for an event, I was a senior in High School and we were participating in a "student congress." That is when I decided to become the first Lady Mayor of the City of Los Angeles. Meanwhile... life happened and we still haven't had a Lady Mayor. But I don’t stop hoping!

This was a massive undertaking by volunteers. Grayce Liu, General Manager of EmpowerLA, the City agency which has operational responsibility for the Neighborhood Council (NC) system and its 96 neighborhoods, provided some help but the bulk of the work was done by NC volunteers from throughout the City. 

The Los Angeles Police Department Cadet Program provided much of the onsite support staff.

There is something about seeing these fresh faced young men and women in their white uniforms that creates a sense of optimism. Here is proof that the Police Department, in addition to serving as a deterrent against crime, also invests in programs to help these young people improve relations with law enforcement, to take advantage of their physical and academic programs, and to get involved in community service. 

Ms. Cindy Cleghorn, Sunland Tujunga NC, has served as Chair of this annual event since its inception. She is either a masochist or deserves "sainthood" for marshaling all of the various resources and people together. 

I asked her about the standout features of this Congress. She said it was the enthusiastic energy of both the volunteer host committee and the attendees. Just about every workshop was filled to capacity. Over fifty per cent of the attendees were first-timers. 

The Congress had been stuck for the last couple of years at 700 attendees representing about 80 percent of the ninety-six Neighborhood Councils. This time there were over 800 attendees from ninety-four NCs. Since this is pre-registration data and 150 people registered on site, the statistics will probably end up higher. It was a well done, professional event and they deserve a lot of credit. 

For those of you unfamiliar with your own NC, here is a brief description. Because NCs are under the City Charter, there are lots of rules and regulations governing what can and cannot be done. Basically, they have some influence but no real power. Usually, the City Council members who view their relationship with the NCs in their district as important show up to this event and offer a few words of encouragement in an informal “meet and greet.” 

The councilmembers who don't show up are, for the most part, the ones who find their NCs a thorn in their sides; they have no interest in partnering on community projects. Several Department heads came, as well as City Controller, Ron Galperin; also, Public Works Manager, Kevin James; Planning Director for the City of Los Angeles, Vince Bertoni; Code Enforcement Bureau Acting Chief, John Biezins; as well as other City Department Heads who were active in the panel discussions concerning their areas of responsibility. Among other speakers and panelists were a wide variety of NC board members and community experts. 

NC board members are elected by their neighborhoods, so to have that many different board members and other stakeholders under one roof at a time provides a chance to find consensus on important issues. It’s not binding, but it can encourage the individual NCs to report back to their communities for feedback and influence. Not to do this is a lost opportunity! 

There was one particular panel I was interested in attending: "The Future of the Neighborhood Council Movement: New Faces, New ideas." I have been greatly concerned about the future of this exercise in democracy. As one of the City’s “gurus” pointed out, how can you have a democracy when the majority of the NC Boards of Directors make decisions on behalf of their neighborhoods without consulting them

When you consider that the City Attorney shoots down most of the good ideas; the Mayor's office quietly discourages the idea that NCs should have any influence; the "Board of Neighborhood Commissioners” is appointed by the Mayor and it could be disbanded without being missed; and the DONE staff can't handle the day-to-day operations of the 96 councils … the NC system is in danger of slowly disappearing. 

Add to that, the fact that the almost 1800 elected representatives are divided into groups: 25% doing a great job; 35% an average job; 30% have their funds frozen or do not have enough directors attending to form a quorum; and then another 20% who have operated the same way with the same people for the last fifteen years. Some fall into more than one category, making totaling up to more than 100%. 

Imagine my surprise then, to find that the panel consisted of mostly new faces. They represented most of the City and all of them were actively involved in reaching out to the stakeholders in their respective neighborhoods. 

My only criticism of the make-up of the panel I attended was that there was only one San Fernando Valley representative. The Valley is 220 square miles and it has almost half of the NCs in its geographical area. It can easily be divided into four separate sections...all with different challenges. 

This panel was organized by Rhonda L. Spires, Canoga Park NC; the Moderator was Michael Newhouse Esq. of the Venice NC. 

Panelists included: Nick Greif, Palms NC; Andrew Jhun, Mid City West Community Council; Saaliha Khan, Canoga Park NC; Danielle Sandoval, Central San Pedro NC; and Bonnie Strong, Olympic Park NC. 

It looked like a microcosm of Los Angeles. They gave the audience a good glimpse into how they were orchestrating their NCs and reaching out to their stakeholders. I noticed Grayce Liu was taking a lot of notes. All of them stressed the importance of social media and were proud of their websites. If you live in any of their neighborhoods, or just want to get some great ideas on how to engage various groups, I urge you to check out their various sites, found at Empowerla.org. 

I also took notes and hopefully the session was recorded. I am curious to see where this goes and if Empower LA (otherwise known as Department of Neighborhood Empowerment -- DONE) will do anything with the ideas and suggestions. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention City Council President, Herb Wesson who opened the event with his usual enthusiasm. This time it was more than just words. A little over a year ago, the Councilman took the responsibility of the Neighborhood Councils into his rules committee. I thought it would be the usual political empty promises. 

Surprise...surprise! He has taken his interaction with the various NCs seriously. He announced at the inaugural general session that the Sunland Tujunga NC, kicked out of its long time office almost a year ago by EX-Councilmember Felipe Fuentes (I love saying EX,) will be moving back in to the municipal facility. Rather than appointing a legislative analyst to represent the EX-Councilman's District 7, he is assuming that responsibility. There are currently 21 people running for the EX- Councilmember's seat. The election will not be held until next March. District 7 is NOT a walk in the park. 

To conclude, I am pleased that I was wrong in anticipating a mediocre Neighborhood Congress. I still think it should be held more often than once a year. In my not so humble opinion -- after fifteen years, the entire NC system should be re-evaluated and the group should collectively come up with a strategic plan to meet the needs of the City today and into the future. 

Power to the People! 

As always comments welcome.

(Denyse Selesnick is a CityWatch columnist. She is a former publisher/journalist/international event organizer. Denyse can be reached at: [email protected]) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.  




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