LA’s Neighborhood Councils are a Constitutional Shambles

MAILANDER’S LA-Suppressing the Constitution is at least as popular a tool in the administration of the day-to-day affairs of the City of Los Angeles as hypocrisy itself. And while we all know our elected officials are cordon bleu hypocrites, and our choices among them almost always boil down to the lesser of two unfathomably deplorable evils, our second tier of electeds--our Neighborhood Council reps and their departmental shepherds at EmpowerLA--are learning unconstitutionality fast from the big boys and their best pal Nury.

 Unfortunately, they are not swift enough on the uptake to manage unconstitutionality to their full advantage, as the top guns are.  And the City isn't helping them much, so it's costing them dearly, and may cost them even more. 

The unstable, anti-democratic and likely unconstitutional cockleshell that the Neighborhood Council system has become is now so additionally destabilized by the City Ordinance governing candidate and voter qualifications that the whole punt may capsize if encountering a sudden chop in the form of a single legal challenge.

For instance, alert readers may know by now that the City has passed an Ordinance that ties the ability to become a candidate or vote in a Neighborhood Council election to owning a business or property in a neighborhood, even if you don't live there.

Now, States haven't overtly allowed property ownership of any kind to determine political voting rights or candidacy rights in America since the universal white manhood suffrage of the 1820's. Southern states ducked universal suffrage for a little while, through "poll taxes, literacy tests, and other bureaucratic loopholes" for a long time, but these too were all found to be unconstitutional eventually.  I don't know how a business owner may run for office or vote in the place she owns a business, but another kind of citizen who simply likes to visit or utilize a business in that same town cannot.

If I like to golf in your community, and dependably bring my golfing dollars to your community, and spend considerable time at the nineteenth hole too, and your Neighborhood Council is messing around with issues impacting the golf course there, I shouldn't have to own the course in order to hold office or vote in your City of LA election that affects my City of LA amenity.

If domicile alone doesn't determine voting or candidacy rights, then property or business ownership cannot possibly determine these.  Period.  If the Neighborhood Council people say it does, then they're not standing for a truly democratic process. 

Or consider this other micro-oddity: the fact that the City Clerk has not demonstrated that they have an effective way of de-duping the voting rolls from one neighborhood to another.  If a business owner votes in your neighborhood, can't she also vote in her own too, by strength of her own domicile? How would the City be able to guard against that? Is it even willing to do so? What happened to the twentieth century Constitutional precept "One person, one vote"?

Maybe none of this is supposed to matter anyway.  After all, the minimum age at which one might serve on a Neighborhood Council is not eighteen but sixteen.  This might make for some good current affairs term papers for some select high school students, but I would hate to see a Neighborhood Council vote on an important land use issue involving whether or not to endorse the development of 200 condos come down to the judgment of Justin or Cupcake. 

But creating irregular and likely illegal voting and candidacy regulations is not the only way that Neighborhood Councils and their regents have trampled on the Constitution while hoping not to encounter any serious challenges. 

I was amused to read that some Neighborhood Council leaders, who obviously are elected officials spending real public money but yet also wish to shy away from the inquiry and bombast warranted of ordinary public service, appealed to City Attorney Mike Feuer for some kind of legal protection from occasional Fleet Street scrutiny and tabloid treatment.

Feuer, who to his credit still has trace amounts of Constitutional knowledge left in his head--his predecessor Trutanich did not even by this stage of his tenure--sensibly told the flush-faced whiners to grow up and deal with it.

Or, as some might say in some of our City's most vibrant neighborhoods, "First Amendment, biches."

So many officers in Neighborhood Councils are uncertain whether they are electeds or community organizers or City publicists, and the City doesn't help them sort these very different roles to master much. Flying blind, they end up politicking without wearing out shoe-leather, organizing organizations rather than people, and writing happyface copy for happyface newspapers.  Without much guidance, trying their hand at all kinds of activities and doing a convincingly estimable job of none of them, they end up baffled by a system that doesn't pay them, demands much of them, doesn't offer legal support of them, brings them conflict and headache, and even while powdering them as neo-aristocrats speaking for the many, mostly asks them to flack for the oligarchic interests of the powerful few.

Frankly, I am baffled by this system too. I am baffled as to why people don't just join the Elks. The Neighborhood Council movement was sold to us as a community-level pyramid base of Jeffersonian democracy, but to me it operates more and more like a wannabe neo-Stalinist ziggurat with every passing year.

But also it's important to note that this whole trend to ignore rather than state the obvious and promote the unconstitutional rather than the Constitutional may not reside only at the neighborhood level in town but even in media.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.












Vol 12 Issue 7

Pub: Jan 24, 2014