Neighborhood Councils: Born and Grown from Competing Visions

15 CANDLES

GELFAND’S WORLD--(Editor’s Note: This month marks the 15th anniversary of the certification of Los Angeles’ first Neighborhood Council. CityWatch is celebrating with a multi-month celebration of introspective articles and view points on how LA’s Neighborhood Councils came about, how they’re doing and how their future looks. This perspective by Bob Gelfand is just such an effort.)  

Setting: The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, Dec. 6, 2016, celebrating the completion of 15 years of the neighborhood council system. A recess from the official meeting allowed some of us old timers to be interviewed on camera by a city official. 

The interviewer said, "It doesn't have to be anything long. Three or four sentences would be fine." I tried. A few words came out. I asked for another take. Still not the story. I tried one more time and posterity will have to be content with my stumbling. It's just too much of a history to tell in 3 sentences or even 3000. So let me ask the cameraman to forgive me. Given time to think, I offer you a few basic themes that have emerged slowly from 2001 to the present. The first theme is borrowed from a Supreme Court justice's comment that the essence of the law lies in experience, not theory. Like Constitutional law, the essence of our neighborhood council story is based on experience, not just the wording of the city's Charter. 

In the absence of clear and adequate legal principles, we have to build and learn from experience. The original discovery by so many of us founders was that the city's Charter language establishing the neighborhood council system is ambiguous. The Charter language isn't even clear as to whether a neighborhood council consists of all the thousands of people within a district or is just the elected board. Note that city government has a defined structure. We have a City Council of precisely 15 people. For neighborhood councils, the language of the law refers to stakeholders, and they include all the people within the district and then some. 

This ambiguity can have serious consequences when it comes to real world functioning. For example, City Council members and city departments tend to invite a few neighborhood council presidents to small meetings, which misses the point of the whole invention of neighborhood councils. 

These issues didn't slow us down. As long as the city government was willing to ignore the ambiguities, we made the attempt to work within their induced confusion. 

There are other ambiguities which I've mentioned before -- for example the insistence that a neighborhood council must be diverse, yet must also be as independent as possible. This isn't as trivial as it sounds. At the December, 2001 meeting in which neighborhood councils were first officially certified, our founding president was asked to explain how we would achieve diversity. Considering that we had chosen to have our board members selected by a community wide election, it was hard to guarantee any such thing. Perhaps the commissioners recognized that they were walking into an ambiguity trap and backed off. Somehow, we got through the questioning and became official. 

Six weeks later, in February of 2002, we held our first board election and commenced to operate as the people's ears and mouth. It was a first for the City of Los Angeles, but it has been repeated across the city thousands of times since. 

The curious finding after all these years is that the ambiguity of the Charter language wasn't as much of a hindrance as it threatened to be. Somehow our council survived and along with many others, thrived. That should have been my first comment to the cameraman, even if it can't be expressed adequately in a single sentence. 

The next lesson is that everyone comes to the process with a different vision. The Charter language is like some sort of alphanumeric ink blot test. It has allowed thousands of people to read their own visions into building their councils in dozens, maybe hundreds of different ways. Not only is a neighborhood council put together out of competing visions, the primary vision that coalesces at one point will evolve into a different vision at another. 

In our early years, we were concerned with how our immediate neighbor, the Port of Los Angeles, treats our community. We made it our objective to push for reduced air pollution coming from the port's activities, as the port is responsible for a significant fraction of all diesel derived pollutants in the LA basin. Over these 15 years, the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have reduced their contribution to the region's air pollution substantially. This is not something that is attributable to the neighborhood councils by themselves, but we played a role in the political environment, making sure that our elected officials understood that air quality is a priority to our residents. The harbor area neighborhood councils became a part of the civic conversation. More than that, they provided a nucleus for people to get involved in the process. 

Even as some of us thought about human environmental effects, some were involved with the region's economic health. Others (such as myself) were involved in supporting the cultural attributes of our extended neighborhoods. In San Pedro, several neighborhood councils have lobbied for city protection of a classic movie theater and other historic structures. We found that we are not alone. We notice that the people of Fullerton have been carrying on a preservation and restoration campaign for their own historic movie theater. 

As an aside, let me point out that a few historic theaters have been preserved, among them the Egyptian in Hollywood, the Fox in Fullerton, and the Warner Grand in San Pedro, whereas many other old time movie houses have either fallen into disrepair or been demolished. The spirit of the neighborhood council is to preserve structures and traditions that are central to the spirit of a community, even when doing so runs against the tide of local economics. This is a form of preservationism in its own right, an attempt to conserve specific things that would leave us culturally poorer by their loss. 

That might have been my second thought, the realization that protection of the classical urban structure is worth doing. In this, the neighborhood councils have joined a movement originally developed by organizations such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Hollywood Heritage, and are just a little bit removed from those who have preserved our national parks going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln. 

Given the chance to express just three thoughts, I would insist on spending my last thought on the flip side of the experiential coin -- the incessant internal competition within individual neighborhood councils and among adjacent neighborhood councils. Some refer to it as squabbling or bickering. Some critics point to the often excessive level of debate on more or less mundane issues. Some think of our propensity to verbiage as some kind of affliction of the ego. I think that those who insist on this view are, in their own way, rediscovering Ecclesiastes: All is vanity. The only difference is that our modern day critics are protesting that which the prophet viewed as eternal. 

Can we be trapped in our own vanity and destined to nothingness, as the prophet says, and still make things better in this, our own time and our own place? It's a decent question, but it applies to most things in life. If nothing else, our first one and a half decades have been quite the experience.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net.)

-cw