ACCORDING TO LIZ - There appears to be a huge disconnect between what DONE does and its name – the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
In fact, some have recently referred to it as the Department of Neighborhood Dis-Empowerment or, simply, the Dictatorship.
When researching one of my earliest articles for CityWatch, I came across the following in Wikipedia - the DONE Pledge that seems to have disappeared from the EmpowerLA website as well as the Department’s modus operandi in recent years.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment Pledge
- We will treat the public with courtesy and respect.
- When explaining a restriction, making a suggestion, or reporting a delay, we will always explain the reason why.
- We will ensure that people who call during working hours will always have an opportunity to speak to someone.
- We will avoid using insider or bureaucratic language.
- We will be good listeners.
- We will honor the Mayor's "no wrong door" policy, and never use the words, "It's not my job!" We will find out whose job it is.
- We will never say, "Because that's the way we've always done it," or "We tried it that way once but it didn't work."
- We will keep the promises we make.
- We believe that everyone deserves an answer.
- We will strive to be the best friend that neighborhood councils have.
How well is DONE performing on these commitments today?
Let’s look at some history.
Neighborhood Councils did not magically appear fully-formed in the year 2000.
Los Angeles has a long history of being a collection of disparate communities rather than a city with a single central core. Many times the government used them in divide-and-conquer approaches to retain and increase factional power.
The idea of empowered neighborhoods goes back over a hundred years when the settlement house concept emigrated from England to Chicago, immigrant cities on the east coast and out west. But the Los Angeles government and its 1925 charter kept all the power in an often overtly corrupt downtown City Hall.
During the Depression self-help groups organized in various City communities, referred to as “neighborhood councils” in a 1936 Women’s Home Companion article.
The inability of City Council to coordinate services as Los Angeles exploded in the post-WW2 economic boom led to increasing demands for government reform and calls for secession in the 1950s and 1960s. Concrete proposals for change to address the myriad problems crumbled due to Council inaction.
In 1966, Mayor Sam Yorty initiated a charter reform commission that determined that, while City functionaries felt they were doing a reasonably good job, ordinary Angelenos strongly disagreed. The commission endorsed establishing neighborhood associations with elected “neighborhoodmen” to act as liaisons between the neighborhoods and City Hall.
This died. And the quality of municipal services, that had eased with the 1960s “War on Poverty” funding, rapidly deteriorated over the next two decades fueling further citizen complaints.
Developers, well-connected to those in government who could grease approvals, were running rampant during a time when the priority of residents was preservation of single-family neighborhoods.
As the City entered the last decade of the millennium, Los Angeles was convulsing with City Hall corruption, violence in the streets and threats of secession from the Valley and the South Bay due to poor services.
Then chief deputy to Councilman Joel Wachs, Greg Nelson came across a report that indicated neighborhood councils “decreased community conflicts, smoothed the functioning of city government, taught participants how government worked, and helped them achieve meaningful goals”. In the cities studied, such councils were appreciated by both residents and city government.
The neighborhood council concept would be an option to give a voice if not power to the diverse communities of Los Angeles.
At the same time then-mayor, Richard Riordan was trying to wrest power back from the City Council.
The ones who did not have a seat at the table during this wrangling were the yet-to-be formed Neighborhood Councils.
After much dispute, Article IX of the new City Charter that went into effect July 1, 2000, was passed.
Its purpose was to: “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.”
Although the entire Article was labeled “Department of Neighborhood Empowerment,” Section 901 spelled out the jurisdiction – the duties and responsibilities of the new department in order to fulfill the purpose for which the department was created: the Neighborhood Councils.
Essentially, this was the grunt work to get dozens and dozens of these Neighborhood Councils up and running across almost 470 square miles of urban sprawl.
Which kept the DONE worker bees busy for the first few years.
The Charter sets forth that DONE was to assist Neighborhood Councils “with the election or selection of their officers... arrange training for Neighborhood Councils’ officers and staff [not, as occurred later, to mandate, dictate, micromanage or oversee]... and assist Neighborhood Councils to share resources, including offices, equipment, and other forms of support for them to communicate with constituents, other Neighborhood Councils and with government officials.”
That the general manager was to “appoint, discharge and prescribe the duties of staff, consistent with the civil service provisions of the Charter” [NOT the Neighborhood Councils].
That the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners was to be responsible for policy setting and policy oversight [not creeping policy creation or rubber-stamping actions by DONE].
Each neighborhood council seeking official certification or recognition from the City was to submit an organization plan and [their own] by-laws... membership open to everyone who lives, works or owns property in the area... reflect the diverse interests... open and public... every stakeholder to participate [almost a hundred approved and active].
Subject to applicable law, the City Council could delegate its authority to neighborhood councils to hold public hearings prior to the City Council making a decision on a matter of local concern [but, unfortunately, does not require them to pay more than lip-service to the wishes of the people].
Each neighborhood council may present to the Mayor and Council an annual list of priorities for the City budget [as performed by some individual Neighborhood Councils and through the Budget Advocates].
Neighborhood councils were charged with monitoring the delivery of City services in their respective areas and to have periodic meetings with responsible officials of City departments, subject to their reasonable availability [excellent results with some departments; others are evidently so understaffed or dismissive of Neighborhood Council rights so as to render this impossible].
The Mayor and Council shall thereafter appropriate funds for the neighborhood councils department and [functioning of] neighborhood councils at least one year in advance of each subsequent fiscal year [the $50,000 offered under Mayor James Hahn has been cut to $32,000 as costs go up, demands increase, and Neighborhood Councils become more effective].
Jeffrey Berry's book The Rebirth of Urban Democracy identifies crucial elements for success of a neighborhood council system:
- a strong and fundamental political commitment to neighborhood councils
- proactive pursuit of community input on budgetary matters
- early notification of pertinent city meetings
- engagement of all stakeholders, not just homeowners – i.e. everyone who lives, works or owns property
At the time, with each City Councilmember representing a quarter of a million Angelenos, even they acknowledged being out of touch with their constituents and a complete lack of civic engagement.
People cared about their immediate neighborhoods but far less about the City itself, leading to calls for secession by the Valley, the harbor area and in other communities suffering from inadequate services.
The existing city charter from 1925 had less and less relevance in a Los Angeles about to enter the second millennium. So, in drafting the hotly contested replacement, a segment was added to set up neighborhood councils.
Although they lacked concrete powers to curb City Hall, it gave all areas of Los Angeles had the right to formally solicit and publicize concerns in their communities and to make the City leaders listen.
By bringing the views of the stakeholders directly to City Councilmembers, Neighborhood Councils now had a way to stand up to the crony lobbyists who for too long had had unfettered access to City Hall.
Under Greg Nelson, the force behind and an early General Manager, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment as created by the new City Charter had a single mission: to grow, support and encourage the Neighborhood Councils.
They grew, from the original handful to sixty-six and now ninety-nine. They attracted local leadership who developed alliances across the City. Outreach, especially to stakeholders with fewer advantages, became a priority.
They hold an annual Congress of Neighborhoods, in person at City Hall (and virtually through the pandemic years) with a wide range of subject matter and training seminars. Through the Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates, they involved themselves in the City budget and gave increasingly sage advice whether it was taken at the time or not.
Over the years as the Neighborhood Councils became a greater force for change, the lobbying interests that could afford to buy a few Councilmembers but not hundreds and hundreds of neighborhood activists plus certain City officials, have fought the rising power of the Neighborhood Councils.
Some actions are subtle – swift scheduling of controversial items knowing Neighborhood Councils’ monthly meetings will give them 60 to 90 days before a groundswell of opposition can erupt, or tagging limitations on seemingly innocuous actions.
A recent example being the embedding of DONE’s General Manager’s broad right to remove elected Neighborhood Council board members without due process in an ordinance ostensibly to ensure inclusivity.
To further impede any potential for real power, of late the City Council and DONE, instead of supporting Neighborhood Councils, seem to have focused on ways to divert and dilute their effectiveness and curtail their actions.
Right now, there is a once in a generation opportunity for the Mayor to appoint a visionary new General Manager to lead DONE out of its current quagmire, and for her and the City Councilmembers to ensure the power and luster of the Neighborhood Councils are restored.
If not, if the power is not returned to the people, the City government will face escalating controversy from multiple interest groups and further demands for secession.
In reinventing the Department to facilitate the organization and operation of the Neighborhood Councils and rebuilding the excitement and commitment of Angelenos to make a difference, to improve the City and the lives of all its inhabitants, a great General Manager will be able to help the City save itself.
In undertaking to adhere to the above Pledge, DONE can become the agency of empowerment to reinvigorate the Neighborhood Council system and the stakeholders which they represent in a City that should continue to be indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Some data drawn from “A History of Neighborhood Empowerment in Los Angeles” by Leonard Pitt (2003).
(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)