Neighborhood Councils: What Might Have Been

GELFAND’S WORLD--Raphe Sonenshein (photo above) is the learned professor and expert on politics who has been teaching neighborhood council participants about the structure and function of LA city government. You might say that his public lecture series called Civic University is a primer for amateur activists. A couple of decades ago, Raphe (short for Raphael) got involved in the Charter reform movement that ultimately led to the creation of the neighborhood council system. He's been following it ever since. 

The Civic U is educational and it is also fun, largely because Raphe spins yarns about the folks who make the city run, going back to the unruly City Council members of the 1970s, Mayor Bradley, and up through today's zillions of departments and agencies we might want to know about. 

As somebody who has been both a participant and an observer of the neighborhood council system since its beginnings in 2000-2001, I've been listening to the lectures with an interested but quizzical ear. I keep thinking about what we might have done differently. What worked and what didn't? If we could change things, what would they be? 

After the class the other night, I chatted briefly with Raphe and said I had some questions for the final class meeting. Thinking about it a little more, I then suggested to him that I would like to share my questions with CityWatch readers in advance. After all, I've been grinding my own axes here for years, so why not do a little ax grinding for the CU? 

Here goes. 

  1. Are the populations served by most neighborhood councils too large? For example, a neighborhood council whose boundaries include 85,000 people is already one-third the size of a City Council district. Wouldn't we be better off if most councils included, at most, 10,000 people? Greg Nelson used to tell us about some study that suggested optimal participation in groups that were at most four or five thousand people. So what's the best trade-off between the current 96 mostly-oversized councils and the level of 4000 people per council, which would require a thousand councils in this one city? 
  1. Would the system have been better off if, from the start, neighborhood council stakeholders had simply been defined as the residents of their districts rather than the current broadly based definition with all its other categories (eg: work in the district, own property, have some other interest)? Would it be possible (say through a timely Charter amendment) to make the switch in the near future? 
  1. When I lived in an eastern city a number of years ago (hint: it is associated with deflated footballs) the residents explained very seriously that their police and politicians were "the best that money can buy." I don't see Los Angeles as having that level of corruption, nor do I find that attitude among our residents. But I do see a lot of cynicism among people who live here. It comes down to the widespread belief that the developers own the elected officials and get to do (mostly) what they want. First of all, is this cynicism merited? If it is merited, should it be explained as the result of officials who want to do good things but are trapped in a system in which campaign financing is the first necessity? Is there anything we can do about it, such as full public financing? Overall, how corrupt is the city government, if at all? 
  1. A critical question that is mostly left unverbalized, but underlies a lot of other discussions: The neighborhood councils have no official power over things such as zoning applications or where parking meters go, or any of the thousands of other choices that elected officials make. Should neighborhood councils have some power(s) and if so, which? 
  1. One long-standing gripe of mine is this: City officials say a lot of nice things to neighborhood councils, but they don't do anything to let the wider population of LA know that we even exist. That's understandable -- if more LA residents were involved in neighborhood councils, then the councils would have more political influence and they could create difficulties for elected officials. How can we solve this problem and build our numbers, either through our own efforts or through creating enough pressure on the City Council? 

Bonus question: Did the Neighborhood Council Review Commission fail in its essential mission of evaluating the structure and function of the system and if so, was that because it avoided considering changes that would require a Charter amendment? 

Second bonus question: The Charter language seems to suggest that neighborhood councils are expected to communicate with each other and work together in order to have more influence. Beyond what we've already done in terms of regional and citywide alliances, what can we do to make this happen? 

Cynicism upheld: the consolation prize 

Down where I live, there was a tightly contested congressional election to fill the seat previously held by Janice Hahn. Under the new election system, there was a runoff between two Democrats. Isadore Hall came to the battle with a long-standing career in politics, having previously served in the Assembly and the state senate. His relatively untested opponent was Nanette Barragan, an attorney who served on the Hermosa Beach City Council. Hall lost the election by four percentage points, a real shellacking for a guy who was supposed to be Hahn's heir apparent. 

Hall was out of a job, government-wise. A few days ago, the governor appointed Hall to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board. As news stories explained, the position has a salary of $142,095. I wonder if the governor would have appointed Hall if Hall had been a Republican. Will any of the reform minded Democrats who just got elected to state party committees complain about this kind of conduct?


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