Neighborhood Council Reform: The Tug-of-War Continues


GELFAND’S WORLD--A recent CityWatch article by James Preston Allen has generated considerable controversy and no little excitement. Allen's article is presented as an open letter to LA City Council President Herb Wesson, and deals with the relationship between LA government and its neighborhood council system. In particular, Mr Allen is critical of the way that neighborhood council governing board members were elected down here in the harbor area a few weeks ago. 

Well, I have to agree with James that the voting process was a mess. We might remember that the original concept of the neighborhood council was a gathering of neighbors to discuss their mutual concerns. The original definition for eligibility was to live, work, or own property within your neighborhood council district. It was an attempt to bring in everyone who has a true stake in the community, and to prevent organized groups of outsiders from taking over. 

Unfortunately, the city has changed the rules with frightening regularity, expanding the definition of eligible voter (aka stakeholder) one year, then pulling back a couple of years later. This year, the city decided that anyone claiming to be a member of a Facebook organization would be eligible to vote in neighborhood council elections. The idea seems absurd on its face, but there it is. 

There was some kind of theoretical limitation. Supposedly, the Facebook groups had to operate within the neighborhood council's district. But in practice, this was meaningless. All you had to do was pick up an identification card from one of the participating groups, and you were free to go. The result in my neighborhood council was that we had opposing groups setting up shop right down the block from the polling place. They were handing out membership cards to everyone who asked. 

Then the insta-voters were allowed to cast ballots in our election. Yes, I can see why James Allen wants a review of the system. 

Where I differ with James is in his proposed remedies. I suspect our differences stem from our differing perspectives. I therefore would like to consider the James Allen proposals according to my own experience.

To begin with a point of clarification, let me explain that DONE is the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees the neighborhood council system in Los Angeles. the DONE election manual that James mentions (below) refers to the set of rules created by DONE for carrying out neighborhood council elections. 

Here are the three main proposals in Allen's article, as addressed to the President of the Los Angeles City Council: 

What I ask of you, President Wesson, are these: 

  1. To empanel a commission of 15 former neighborhood council presidents based upon their seniority and experience, chosen by you and not the local council office, to review and reform the DONE election manual.
  1. To empanel a commission formed at the next Congress of Neighborhood Empowerment to draft a Citizen’s Bill of Rights for the City of Los Angeles.
  1. To provide enough resources so that each city council district has its own DONE lawyer who will actually attend meetings so as to provide timely legal advice and represent them as their client rather than protecting the department and the city first.

Let's consider the first proposal, because to my mind, it's the crux of the matter. The suggestion is to review and rewrite the election rules, not in and of itself a bad thing. The problem is that Allen's proposed process uses a procedure which is entirely top-down.

It starts with the City Council President at the top, and he decides who gets to decide. That's three-quarters of the game right there. You can be sure that controversial people and deep thinkers will be left off any such committee. The select committee would have another defect. It's created out of a select few -- former neighborhood council presidents -- who are given the power to go off by themselves and make decisions for the rest of us.

That this should be an unwelcome approach is immediately obvious to the thousands of us who have never been neighborhood council presidents. We would be disenfranchised.

You might also ask, why should we expect that neighborhood council presidents are the ones who should be given the authority to write the rule book for our elections? How does this fit with the concept of choosing those with the most knowledge and ability to carry out a task?

I would like to offer a couple of real-life examples of how to create a useful review committee and how not to do it.

First, let's consider a process that actually worked. Several years ago, neighborhood councils were faced with a proposal that came out of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. The BONC is the appointed commission that is supposed to set overall policy within the entire system. The proposal -- somewhat vague at the start, but for that very reason threatening to many of our hard-won gains -- was that DONE and the BONC would come up with a single set of bylaws that would be imposed upon all neighborhood councils. Since we are so different from each other in so many ways, this created a quiet firestorm of disapproval. What could we do? What did we do?

As private individuals and through the citywide neighborhood council alliance, we created a taskforce to deal with the bylaws issue. Instead of asking one of the top elected officials to appoint a select committee, we simply announced that everyone was welcome to attend and participate. It was "come one, come all," and they did. We had people from all over the city, as well as members of the BONC and representatives from DONE. We came up with a proposal that was satisfying to the neighborhood councils and to city officials, and which did a minimum of harm. The city got what it wanted, which turned out to be that each neighborhood council had bylaws arranged in the same order (it was amazing to us how little the officials actually wanted). Neighborhood councils didn't have to restructure themselves.

The reason I bring up this example is to point out that we created the taskforce because the top-down system had failed us. You could say that we created our process in direct opposition to the top-down system.

Our bottom-up process brought fresh blood into the discussion, got us a lot of ideas to toss around, and ultimately allowed us to agree on a plan that was effectively without opposition. Had the process been top-down and behind closed doors, I doubt that the outcome would have been accepted so easily.

The wide-open system had another virtue: It seemed to provide comfort to people who heard about the process and couldn't make the meetings. Everyone, even those who did not attend, understood that anybody could attend and anybody could object to any element of our plan. They understood that their own concerns would be raised by someone at some point.

Compare that to Allen's proposal number 1, which calls for the second-most powerful politician in the city (maybe the most powerful) to choose from a select list -- that of former presidents. There are several thousand people who have participated in the neighborhood council system over the years, and most of us have never been neighborhood council presidents.

Now I would like to offer an example of how a top-down system worked poorly. The 1999 city Charter amendment that created the neighborhood council system called for a review within 7 years. Thus in the mid-2000s we had the Neighborhood Council Review Commission (NCRC). Its members were appointed by the city council representatives and by the mayor. It was just the sort of select committee that James Allen proposes. The NCRC managed to meet for almost a year, spent a huge amount of money, and then took a modest problem -- the definition of who is eligible to vote and participate in neighborhood councils -- and made it into the chronic disaster it is today. Out of the NCRC debacle, we saw the extension of voting rights through the creation of a new definition, the "Factual Basis Stakeholder." This effectively made every neighborhood council election open to any and every person. The FB stakeholder definition has more recently been modified and given another name but it's still the extension of the franchise to the whole world.

I agree that our elections are a mess. I just don't agree with the proposed method to create the review process. I don't think it would even get to the right questions, much less the right answers.

By the way, the easiest and most philosophically defensible approach to fixing our election problems is to limit neighborhood council stakeholder status to those who live within the neighborhood council's district. That would solve a lot of problems. The next most logical approach is to go back to the original definition of "lives, works, or owns property within the district." Simple. I sympathize with the idea that we should fix our electoral problems for once and for all. But the way to fix the system is not through the old smoke filled room.

A couple of other comments on a different subject

Allen begins the development of his argument with a good point. The city of Los Angeles is too populous to be well served by a City Council of only 15 members. Each council member represents more than a quarter of a million inhabitants. Allen suggests that neighborhood councils might take up some of the slack:

"The time is fast approaching that the neighborhood council structure should evolve into a kind of bicameral governance system. This is not an uncommon solution in democracies that attain significant size and budget."

I imagine that James is suggesting that the mass of neighborhood councils could function as an equivalent to a second house in a state legislature, but at the municipal level.

This is not so much a radical idea as it is an unlikely idea. It's the sort of structural specification that comes up in a constitutional convention prior to the establishment of a state or a county. I've lived in a lot of places in several states, and I've never seen a city or county with a two-house legislative body. 

There is, however, an idea that has been floating around for decades. The suggestion is that Los Angeles be divided into boroughs, something akin to the system that New York uses. It would have the virtue that districts are not left to the mercies of single individuals, as our current city council district system does. The borough proposal is also unlikely to be fulfilled, but it has the virtue of having been considered carefully by experts in local governance and shown to work in practice.

And finally proposals 2 and 3, one dealing with a Citizens' Bill of Rights, and the other calling for the city to provide City Attorneys for our neighborhood council meetings

I'd like to know what the Citizens' Bill of Rights is about. It might be a good idea. It might not. I suspect that James already has something in mind, but I don't know what it is. The best way to discuss such things in City Watch or at the annual Congress of Neighborhood Councils is to be provided the specifics. Once again, I'm not all that impressed with a process that starts with the appointment of a select panel by the elected officials or, as an alternative, by a one-day meeting that isn't structured to function as an appointive body.

As to proposal 3, the provision of City Attorneys, it seems like a reasonable idea, but we are talking a lot of expense here, and I'm not sure what the upside is. Since neighborhood councils do not pass laws, the intricate sort of legal work that is done by the City Attorney's office is unnecessary. It would be useful to have somebody with knowledge of the law and Roberts Rules in attendance at neighborhood council meetings, but I doubt that we require the presence of a licensed attorney.

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