Enshrining Mediocrity: The Los Angeles Neighborhood Council System, Its Promise and its Failures

VOICES - Fourteen years ago, the city of Los Angeles invited voters to enter into an experiment in local democracy called a system of neighborhood councils. In a city of four million people governed by only 15 City Council members, there are more than a quarter of a million people living in each City Council district. It would be all but impossible for any City Councilman even to know every region in his district, much less a majority of the residents. 

The neighborhood councils -- now totaling 95 -- were supposed to provide a crucial intermediate level, one in which lots of ordinary people could participate. 


The neighborhood council system did come into existence, but in its own peculiar way. It has cost the taxpayers more than fifty million dollars so far, while it has taken -- and often wasted -- thousands of hours of our best volunteers' time. 

The critical failure came at the outset, in the interval 1997-1999, during a time when Mayor Richard Riordan sought to reform the city's Charter, which is the municipal equivalent to a constitution. It's a peculiar part of our history that there were two separate commissions (one elected, the other appointed) which worked more or less in parallel. 

For those with an interest in how this came about, I refer you to a history from Loyola University that describes the old Charter, why Riordan wanted changes,  and the political jockeying that resulted in two parallel and competing charter reform commissions.  

The concept of neighborhood councils came up early in charter commission deliberations,  but became controversial due to fears from the business and real estate development sectors. They worried that neighborhood councils would be able to interfere in zoning changes and other land use decisions. 

Business was willing to accept a compromise in which neighborhood councils would not have direct authority over land use questions, but would be invited to give advice. In this sense, the local councils could play some role in bringing community input to the civic process, but they would have no actual power in any legal sense. 

This history and comments from members of the commissions (told to me in private) suggest that the charter reform commissions had a lot of serious work to do on other matters, and so the defining of neighborhood councils (beyond this one major compromise) and the new Charter wording on how to create them were treated largely as an afterthought. 

We know that some commissioners were serious about neighborhood councils, but there cannot have been much deep debate, considering the brevity of the new Charter wording and the semi-chaotic state of its logic. We are left with the question of whether the wording in Charter section IX is intentionally vague and ambiguous, or whether it was just thrown together as the last task of an exhausting year by an exhausted crew. Neither scenario is comforting to those of us who have had to deal with the system as it came down to us. 

What we got is a document with one huge flaw and a lot of little flaws. 

The huge flaw begins with the idea of stakeholders -- that is to say, people who are presumed to have a stake in a particular community. The charter commissioners chose to make it a broad definition, encompassing all those who live, work, or own property within a given district. In the charter conceptual framework, all stakeholders are invited to participate and run for offices on the local council. 

It doesn't seem all that controversial at first blush, but the "work and own property" elements have provoked numerous rounds of difficulty, largely due to the fact that whenever a neighborhood council election occurs, it is essentially impossible to know who the voters might be until they appear at the polls. We've seen people show up from other counties and other cities, drawn to a particular election by some outside financial or political interest. 

The stakeholder definition creates even more difficulties when it comes to making decisions that represent the community, as we shall discuss below. In any case, the lack of any tangible definition about who actually populates the neighborhood council, and equally critically, who does not, has been a hindrance to neighborhood council functioning since its inception. 


Switching gears for the moment: At one level, this story is about everyday ethical corruption and waste. At another level, as we have already discussed, it's how supposedly intelligent and responsible charter commissioners could create such a horrendous mess. At the most fundamental level, it's how the commissioners and the City Council managed to take a good idea and poison it.


This is the downside. Is there an upside? I'd like to think so.


But to reach that upside, we are going to have to do some thinking, and it had better be a lot deeper than what passed for thought when the charter commissions convened in the late 1990s.


Part of that deeper thought involves the most fundamental question which, sadly enough, seems to have been bungled by those twin charter commissions.


So what's that question? It's simple:




The framers of the neighborhood council system obviously failed to think very hard about this fundamental question, and in their intellectual laziness, failed to connect an intelligent mechanism or structure to a well defined purpose. Rather, the Charter language and the enabling legislation ("The Plan") passed by the City Council are such a mishmosh of self-contradiction and vagueness as to leave rational people seriously perplexed. The legislative wording has become in effect an inkblot exam, where each neighborhood council founding organization projected its own wants and needs, no two ever the same.


The result has been people talking at cross purposes for the past dozen years, muddying the waters, and accomplishing a lot less than we could have. The system, due to its structural peculiarities, seems to have sentenced all of its participants to endless rounds of conflict featuring citizen participants, the City Council, and the City's own bureaucracy. The future, under current City Council leadership, seems bleak. 


But let's look past the grumbly downside and design a scaffold of what might have been and what might yet be, if we can be clever and politically effective.


A historical flashback: By the late 1990s, a lot of Los Angeles residents wanted to break away from the city proper and restructure as separate new cities. The San Fernando Valley is most famous for the valley secession movement, but the harbor area and parts of Hollywood were likewise feeling rebellious. Surveys suggested that, among other things, people felt distanced from their own government.


For a place like San Pedro, that's not all that surprising, considering that just to visit the City Hall, you have to commit to a 50 mile road trip. For the distal elements of the valley, it's similar. But that distanced feeling wasn't just about freeway mileage.


It was also easy for people living within the shadow of the City Hall to feel distanced. The distance was that of power and influence. People understood that they had no real say in decisions that were being made, decisions that affected their lives. That's the worst kind of distance.


And there was more than just feeling distanced. We know this well enough a dozen years later, because we have many of the same problems, now exacerbated by half a dozen years of recession, reduced services, and never ending worries about civic bankruptcy.


Into this morass of failing -- but not yet completely failed -- city government, Mayor Richard Riordan pushed for reform of the city's Charter. The Charter (rendered in capital letters, like the federal Constitution) is equivalent to a constitution for city government. It defines the structure and the various balances of power. Riordan, as a frustrated mayor, wanted to see the mayor's office have more authority. Other folks just wanted to avoid the city falling apart into three or four smaller cities.


Out of this mess, the charter commissions were born. Near the end of their deliberations, the two commissions pulled a rabbit out of a hat, a minor miracle in the political universe, by merging their proposals into one consensus document. And that's what went to the voters in 1999.


In creating their unified proposal, the twin charter commissions threw one bone to the secession movement. It's a small bone, but at least it comes with a label, referring to the creation of  "a citywide system of neighborhood councils."


To accomplish this, the commissioners added a new section to the charter which is known as Section IX. And that is where a lot of trouble was created, and is, by and large, the subject of this essay.


Section IX of the charter and all its subheadings (each starting with the number 9, as in Roman Numeral IX) is remarkably badly written and even more remarkably badly crafted. You can read it using the link provided above, and you will find that it is ambiguous, unclear, and pretty much unrelated to any rational approach to making government work better.


Let's return from the historical flashback and consider the most important question, namely What's it All For? Then we can compare it with what the commissioners wrote.


By "what's it all for,"  I mean to ask what useful thing a neighborhood council system could accomplish. I think it's obvious that in taking up this question, we also get to ask what such a system should avoid, but that will be for a later part of the discussion.


I think that if you are to be rational about the "what's it for" question, there is only one defensible answer, and that is that the neighborhood council system should result in better government. If nothing else, this means a government that suffers from fewer defects. It would mean government in which the very worst defect is ameliorated, even if that worst defect cannot be entirely abolished.


I have to suspect that the charter commissioners understood full well that the worst obstacle to effective government is the power of money in politics. It's no secret, it's not exactly a new idea, and it wasn't back in the 1990s either. But the commissioners couldn't exactly write language into the charter saying that the political system is morally and ethically corrupt. Instead, they wrote some nice sounding language about increasing public participation in government.


What they didn't write, because they didn't dare to go there, is that increasing public participation should be a means to the overall goal of improved government through providing a counterweight to the power of the monied interests. The neighborhood council system is obviously not the only possible means to that end, but it would at least be one such approach.


Yes, public participation is an element of improving government, but it has to be a particular kind of participation.


It follows logically that the mechanism by which the neighborhood council system can improve on government is to be the peoples' lobby. By the peoples' lobby, I mean that the neighborhood council system should represent the interests of us common folk who do not have the money to contribute large sums to politicians' reelection campaigns, who do not have business associations to hire lobbyists, and who are not the chamber of commerce or the wealthier home owners' associations.


In brief, the neighborhood council system ought to provide the representation for the rest of us. It shouldn't speak for the few, extremely wealthy law firms that get their way when legislation is drafted. It shouldn't be forced to include the giant municipal unions that have successfully won pay increases and job security during an era when the rest of us are watching our incomes dwindle, and during an era in which many of us have been out of work.


You might put it a little more indelicately: Our job as neighborhood councils is to grab our City Councilmen (figuratively) by the scruff of the neck and shake them. It is to point out that when they give in to the developer who wants to overcrowd the neighborhood, they are allowing thousands of less influential people down.


Let's write down a simple definition of the purpose of a neighborhood council, and out of that we can begin to define the functioning of the whole system. Out of this discussion, we will discover the simple (and tragic) mistake written into the system by the charter commissioners. You will find, when you look at things closely, that they were really kind of stupid.


Here is a statement of purpose:




That wasn't all that hard, was it? We have a purpose for an organization at the local level. It even fits that name we've all learned, the "neighborhood council." What it doesn't even remotely resemble is the system and structure that the city has tried to foist upon us.


Let's mention one other attribute of this system because it has come back to haunt us over the years.




Perhaps we could be a little more delicate and say "fundamentally different interests," but the basic idea is still obvious. People who live in residential areas want peace and quiet at 6:30 AM, reasonably safe streets, and the ability to park in front of their apartment buildings or houses.


Businesses need to be able to make a profit, which means that they need to have parking available to their customers, they need to be able to accept deliveries before they open or after they close, and they need to run machinery to pump gasoline or clean clothes or refine petroleum. In other words, the residents and the businesses that exist half a block apart are often in diametric opposition over the most fundamental facts of existence, starting with parking, noise, and emissions.


Let's take it one step further and point out another fact that ought to be obvious, but apparently was lost on the charter commissioners.




In other words, the business community (including those municipal unions) has the City Council in its back pocket, and the mayor in the other back pocket.


So in the partially ideal world that might have been created by the new Charter Section IX, we could have created a counterbalance to the overwhelming power and influence of the business interests. We wouldn't beat them as often as they beat us, but we should have been able to reduce the size of the beating we take each time we square off. We would be wounded, but not as seriously. Back six years ago, we wouldn't have seen the City Council give a 25% salary increase to city employees just as the national economy was preparing to go over the cliff, leading us into six years of municipal near-bankruptcy. An effective neighborhood council system should have put a stop to it.


Maybe it's not all that utopian to imagine a world in which bullies still exist, but at least they don't punch you as often or as hard as they used to. But at least it's an achievable goal.


It's a goal we could have accomplished, except for the fools who wrote four words too many into the charter language.


To those who do not or have not participated in the nuts and bolts of the neighborhood council system, allow me to explain.


Let's repeat: The proper definition of a neighborhood council is a place where people who live in some area can come together and discuss their mutual concerns. Those concerns will often include the stresses of living in an environment shared with shoppers, delivery trucks, and tourists. It includes the size of the parking tickets they will receive if they forget to move a car from around the corner. In other words, they will have as one of their rightful concerns their opposition to changes that business owners want to make in their neighborhoods.


So when the charter commissioners wrote up their definitions, how did they structure the neighborhood council system?


The first thing they did is come up with the word "stakeholder." It's an old standby that is broad and fairly innocuous. It refers to any and all people who have a stake -- that is, some kind of interest -- in a particular geographical region. They then decided, or so it would seem, that a proper neighborhood council is one in which all stakeholders are represented, where all stakeholders are allowed to participate, and where all stakeholders have the right to vote for the officers of the organization.


And how did they define stakeholder? They declared that at a minimum, the neighborhood council must include as stakeholders all those who live, work, or own property in the district.


In other words, they ignored completely the natural function of a neighborhood council, which is to give us regular folks -- what I have come to call "the rest of us" -- some little bit of say in how the city is run. They created this definition and wrote it into the charter in spite of what they already knew --  had to know! -- about the overwhelming power of business groups and their lobbyists in the halls of government. They ignored the most fundamental criticism of American government at all levels, which is the power of money to gain access to lawmakers and to wield control over proposed legislation.


The rest of the charter language was pretty much pablum except for a couple of weird wordings that seem to reflect the confused nature of the discussions. The charter language refers to the creation of a system of neighborhood councils. At some level, I think the commissioners understood a neighborhood council to be, in effect, all the people who lived within the council district. We can see this in language that requires us in our bylaws to specify the method by which we choose our officers.


At other places, the charter language seems to refer to a small group of people (what we now refer to as the governing board of the neighborhood council). For example, the charter language demands that neighborhood councils be "diverse." The only plausible explanation for using this term is that the commissioners were thinking about a small elected board rather  than the district as a whole.


Because, if you are talking about the district as a whole and all of its residents, then it is by definition "diverse," as it contains each and every last resident. On the other hand, if you are talking about the elected board, you can write in hopeful (but probably unenforceable) language insisting that the board be representative of the district as a whole.


There is actually a problem with this demand for diversity because it creates an inherent ambiguity which continues to crop up in discussions among the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. If the diversity language is meant to represent the makeup of an elected board that represents the community, it appears to demand a particular kind of outcome rather than demanding a fair, honest, and non-discriminatory process for electing board members.


The latter principle is enshrined as an American doctrine. The former is at best ambiguous, because it doesn't define diversity, nor does it specify what method is to be used by the city to rectify the results of a board election which somebody disagrees with.


For example, should the city step in and overturn an election in which large numbers of employees of a major corporation or real estate development have voted, and in so doing, put an unrepresentative group of people in charge? How could any legally defensible rule be written that would prescribe overturning an otherwise open and honest election? The Charter language is full of this sort of ambiguity.


One final remark about the charter language. The Section IX language by itself does not actually create and define the neighborhood council system. What it does, you might say, is to set up a system for setting up a system. It specifies that there will be a Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) to establish policy and to have final power in creating and destroying our local neighborhood councils, processes known respectively as certification and decertification.


The charter also establishes a city department known as the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) that has day to day authority over some parts of neighborhood council operations, most particularly the control over spending.


In spite of all the ambiguities and self-contradictory wording, the charter language does get one thing right. It says that the individual neighborhood councils shall be as independent as possible.


I  like to interpret this wording in the best possible light, namely that our neighborhood councils are the tool we the people have for fighting City Hall. If we are going to be able to fight City Hall (which means in practice letting the City Council know when we are annoyed about the latest giveaway to a wealthy developer or sports league), then we have to be politically independent.


Most importantly, we need to be able to set our own agendas and reach our own conclusions without fear of political retaliation.


Not everyone agrees with this point of view. There was an old guard  among the members of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners who asked openly for power over neighborhood council board members, including the power to remove people from boards or even to remove all members of a board for what I viewed as minor slights.  Some even supported the right to sentence neighborhood council board members to "mandatory training," in spite of the fact that board members are unpaid volunteers rather than paid employees.


When I mentioned this craziness to some of my  fellow board members, they often laughed a little nervously and made jokes about Southeast Asian reeducation camps. Sadly enough, some of that old guard and its thinking persists.


The case for defining a neighborhood council as consisting of all the residents of a particular area, and in so doing excluding others such as those who work but do not reside in the area, is plain, and no great effort of logic is necessary to defend it further. But it is fitting to make mention of that great pillar of the philosophy of freedom written by John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.


There is a lot to Mill's great work, but there is one point I wish to remember to the reader. Mill points out that in any great debate or simple argument, the person best suited to arguing a particular side is the person who has a personal interest in taking that position. Mill's argument fits perfectly with the concept that residents of a district are the best proponents of what is desirable for that district.


Beyond Mill and general American principles, there are two additional reasons for this line of argument.


The first is that any dilution in the ranks of residents by their opponents -- outside business owners, for example -- is to dilute the level of certitude and willfulness of the organization as a whole. In some cases, the outsiders may ultimately take over an organization to the full extent, by placing their own members as a majority of the board.


This prospect has been worried over at great length among neighborhood council participants, who view it as the "takeover" scenario, that is to say, the gain of control of a neighborhood council board by enough outsiders that the locals no longer have a say in outcomes of board deliberations. In recent years, there have been multiple instances of neighborhood council boards being challenged, and sometimes replaced, by a group of people who do not live within the council's district, but have their own outsider agenda to pursue.


Even when the takeover is not complete, the fact that a board is split between opposing factions means that the more homegrown faction is weakened by the outsider faction.


I will add an aside here. The loss of control to outsiders is treated by some as a virtue rather than a curse. To those who prefer it, it is an example of "inclusiveness." In the modern slang, it is "a feature, not a bug." T


he argument made by proponents of that view is this: If you argue for a more specific definition of who belongs to a neighborhood council, then "you want to exclude people from the process."


This is spoken as if it were a bad thing. I don't see why it is wrong to exclude people who never should have been invited into the process in the first place. But it is a more complicated question because we are talking about elected membership on a governing board and not at all about participation in general.


It is the power to make decisions that is in question here, not the right to participate in debate, offer views, and give testimony. For example, in a discussion of parking rights along residential streets adjacent to a business district, it would be silly to exclude business owners from presenting their views.


The reasons for this are obvious and known to all who participate in these kinds of discussions -- there may be room for compromise (and how can we know unless the other side is there to make an offer?), there may be legitimate reasons involving the economic health of the community as a whole, and there may be simple reasons of justice and humanity that would inspire a group of residents to accede to the requests of a local business community.


But we are not talking about inviting testimony and giving all interests a chance to air their views. We are talking about the right of a community to have an honest vote, among its own numbers, as to what position it wishes to communicate to the city.


Notice that the business owners have their own organizations (which do not invite neighborhood councils to share power) which will be presenting their own pro-business views to the city council. Nobody tells them that they are not inclusive enough.


But the current system is even more confused than the foregoing discussion would imply. It doesn't protect the interests of residents who are definitively opposed to some local business practice, and it doesn't seem to allow for the inspired consensus building between opposing factions that the most inclusive-minded would like. For most neighborhood councils, it is neither.


What is it then? It is a third kind of thing, neither fish nor fowl, that many neighborhood councils adopted out of a sense of self preservation. By self preservation, we refer to protection against a takeover by outside interests. How did they try to do this? By structuring their boards in the least democratic way. We can see this when we look at common board structures.


The structure that has most often been adopted by neighborhood council organizing groups is a defense against the original charter language that endows everyone who either lives, works, or owns property in a district with full rights as a stakeholder. It works, in general, like this: The administrative body of the neighborhood council is referred to as the governing board.


It is this elected body which determines whether the board (speaking for the district as a whole) adopts a policy position either for or against some particular business interest.


For example, some business may wish to build an antenna tower on its roof and would need a zoning exemption.  In developing bylaws and the structure of governing boards, many neighborhood councils arbitrarily divided their boards among the various interest groups which they recognized as being important. In practice, these tended to include homeowners, renters, business owners, educators, and perhaps a few extra board members elected at large.


Notice that if you automatically assign 4 business seats to a board of 20, you have arbitrarily assigned business a twenty-percent stake in the community, regardless of how some other group of founders might have viewed the question, and more importantly, how the residents of the community might assign board representation in current and future elections.


Notice that the alternative, which would be to leave decisions to the electorate as a whole (that is, to have all board seats elected at large) would be far more democratic, because it would leave the apportionment of voting rights on the board to the entire electorate, rather than to a much smaller group of organizers who acted on a one-time basis long ago.


There is one final form of dilution which these mixed boards suffer. Think for a moment about an independent, private homeowners association in Brentwood or the Pacific Palisades. These organizations exist and they have a lot of political influence. That's because they not only represent money, they also represent a lot of votes.


The City Councilman who gets a letter from the president of one of these associations knows exactly how many voters are registered in the subdivision and how many of them voted in previous elections. Support from one of these groups is the equivalent of money in the bank. Opposition from them involves the threat of having to look for a real job.


Now think about the current system of neighborhood councils. Nobody knows the voting population, because it is effectively unlimited. Some neighborhood councils have large business organizations with voting rights, such as the employees and owners of the Playa Vista development.


The employees don't necessarily live within the city limits of Los Angeles, but they get to vote in a neighborhood council election. Why should the city councilman take any of those votes seriously, since they represent the interests of people who can't even vote in a City Council election?


In practice, I suspect, city councilmen have learned to discount the communications coming from the most sullied of their neighborhood councils, and to accept the results coming from the more residential councils.


Let's sum up the discussion in a few words:


If we were to create a system of neighborhood councils based purely on residence within a defined area, it would exclude a few people from board membership, namely those who merely work or own property in the district, but it would have one distinct advantage over the current system: We know it would work. The membership (in the thousands or tens of thousands) would be large, but well defined. The elected officials would understand that advice coming from this kind of council represented the views of voters. This kind of influence is not a trifling thing.


Moreover, such a council would hear from all manner of interests including property owners, business owners, and even a few working stiffs, but board decisions would be limited to those who have the strongest, most significant stake in the community.


In contrast, a neighborhood council board which elects or appoints all manner of other interest groups, from business owners to school teachers to temporary construction workers, will represent nobody in particular, because it represents everybody in all possible ways.


In other words, the effect of adding new interest groups to any deliberative body is to dilute the coherence of its decisions and to dilute its political effectiveness.


The language of the amended version of the Charter would appear to present a concrete wall that separates us, seemingly forever, from the efficient and influential neighborhood council system that we ought to have. Short of another Charter amendment placed on the ballot by the City Council and passed by the voters, is there any way around the problem of Charter language that insists on including everyone who "lives, works, or owns property" within a neighborhood council district?


There are one or two potential approaches which might be achievable through a carefully crafted modification of the enabling ordinance, or potentially even through neighborhood council bylaws modification. But that is for another discussion.


(Bob Gelfand is one of the founders of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council and of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net.)





Vol 11 Issue 17

Pub: Feb 26, 2013