Tue, Apr

LA Neighborhood Council Meetings in the Age of the Pandemic


GELFAND’S WORLD--As many of you have heard, the city of Los Angeles is trying to make its government function in this era of empty sidewalks and closed meeting halls.

The chosen instrument is the online meeting, and the recommended technology is Zoom. On Thursday, about 200 of us got an initial inkling of how the city intends to teach us how to do so. It left a lot to be desired. Still, there is one positive thing to be said about the attempt. 

The city appears to have hired a group called Roberts Rules Made Simple (RobertsRulesMadeSimple.com) to teach us how to behave in a meeting. We were told that there would be a 3 hour webinar on Thursday morning. The alternative is to sign up for its duplicate which will be held on Monday evening. 

We all (the 200 of us) logged in on our computers, and were subjected to 3 hours of a confusing babble of words and gestures, interspersed occasionally with something that was useful. 

The players: Susan Leahy seems to be the founder of this company and was talking to us from somewhere in the central time zone. Freeman Michaels was her associate, and Jim Stewart was online as a professional parliamentarian. 

The first 45 minutes or so was a sort of corporate style pep talk full of words like space, erase, grace – there was one more of these “ace” words, but I neglected to memorize them all. Apparently, this was the corporate version of what the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) has been selling as the code of civility. We are supposed to have the grace to listen to others with open minds. Similarly, we are not supposed to try to “power over” our colleagues. We are encouraged to “power with” our colleagues, if I have that right. 

One of my colleagues referred to the presentation as being full of Kumbaya. To me, the term psychobabble came to mind. 

At 11:26 AM, about half way through the 3 hours, I made a note to myself that there had been perhaps 5 minutes of real content. 

Here’s the positive part: After 18 years or so, DONE has figured out that neighborhood council board members ought to be proficient in Roberts Rules of Order. This is partially pegged to the demands of online meetings, but I’d like to think that somehow, a little of my perpetual complaining on this subject has gotten through to somebody. Wisely, DONE has not relied on its own staff, but brought in a crew of professionals who have already created a video training program. I guess the idea for today’s online session was to introduce us to the program. 

By the end of the 3 hours (and it really went on for 3 hours!) the useful content had increased to maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Leahy described 7 basic motions that are commonly used in meetings. (There is the main motion, any proposed amendment, any proposed amendment to the amendment, the motion to refer to a committee, the motion to postpone to a definite time, the motion to lay on the table, and the motion to call for the previous question.) 

Then Leahy portrayed the discussion of a simple motion to allocate $1500 to something or other, and portrayed every possible way it could be dragged out through amendments, motions to refer, and motions to call the question. 

I will spare you the details, but allow me to offer this comment: What was missing from the whole performance was any discussion of why it’s useful or even necessary to do things this way. Let’s put it like this: Perhaps you and a few of your colleagues think it would be a good idea to support the local farmers’ market or maybe the emergency preparedness fair. That’s what the motion is all about -- you think your community will be served by having such an event, or by supporting the farmers’ market in a time of community stress. The idea of applying public money to such an event is meritorious, but there may be some question – minor controversy even – about how much to spend. 

And that’s pretty much it. All the rest of the convoluted details about a motion to amend the previous amendment are ways of arguing the money question in a controlled way. 

The presenters never managed to explain that when you have a significant number of people (say 15 or 17), each coming from a different background, that there can be differences of opinion about how much to spend. That is, after all, the essence of modern politics. 

So we use Roberts Rules because we have been using it as a people since the 1800s. It has quaint sounding terminology and sometimes rules that can be hard to follow, but as I’ve said here numerous times, if you go anywhere in the United States and walk into a board meeting or a city council, you can follow what is going on through a knowledge of Roberts Rules. It’s like the offside rule in soccer or the infield fly rule in baseball – it might have been written differently at one time, but it is what we have now, and we use it. 

Leahy made a couple of useful points. One is that there is no such thing as a friendly amendment in a real meeting conducted under Roberts Rules. It’s just a proposed amendment, and is to be treated as any other proposed amendment. Another useful point (and a rule that is often violated), is that you don’t get to give a long introductory speech and then offer up your proposed motion. You are supposed to begin with your motion and then shut up while the board waits to hear if there is a second.

I should point out that Jim Stewart, the professional parliamentarian, was particularly good at making cogent points in a brief manner. 

Getting to the online training 

You can get to the online video training in Roberts Rules by going to EmpowerLA.org and following the links to the online meeting section. It turns out that you have to be able to log in using your ID and password. I know that they gave me one after my last reelection, but I couldn’t remember it offhand, so I can’t tell you how good or bad the videos are. Let’s hope that there is useful content in a much shorter package. 

By the way, in response to a question, one of the panelists admitted that this company had contracted to be paid $24,000 for their services, which presumably include the license for us neighborhood council board members to view their videos on their website. 

And by the way, there was zero content of any use about how to start your own online meeting using Zoom, although there were vague promises that some such training would be offered in the future. 

What a waste of time this was. I reached one conclusion after listening to Susan Leahy expostulate for most of the 3 hours: Her presentation may actually work well when given in the live setting, as she makes use of arm waving and such in a way that might make for effective emotional contact with her audience. But in this setting, with people who are already somewhat knowledgeable about having meetings, it failed. 

One question I asked repeatedly, but never got an answer: Has any one of the panelists ever participated in a neighborhood council, or even attended a board meeting? It did not appear to be so.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])




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