Neighborhood Councils at 15: ‘Looking Back, If I Could Change One Thing …’

LOS ANGELES

15 CANDLES-- (Editor’s Note: It has 15 years since Los Angeles certified its first Neighborhood Council … Wilmington Neighborhood Council … in December of 2001. The ’15 Candles’ campaign celebrates the occasion, looks back at the early days and considers the future of LA’s NCs. Bill Christopher Chaired the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners … BONC … beginning in June of 2001 and, working at fever pitch, oversaw the certification of some 60 neighborhood councils in a two year period. Bill takes a look back and considers what he might do differently.)  

 

Was it really only fifteen short years ago?  Looking back, if I could change one thing about the Neighborhood Council System, it would be the overall lack of accountability in the organization. 

The current version of the Los Angeles City Charter became effective on August 30th, 1999, adding a new section creating Neighborhood Councils around the city and the attendant Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, thanks in large part to the efforts of Janice Hahn and Bennett Kayser.  Looking back, Neighborhood Councils came into being in fairly short order when you compare it to the long history of the City. 

The first public discussions of “Community Councils” occurred in the late ‘80s, then tied to the 35 Community Planning Areas defined by City Planning, with Bennett and myself as chief advocates.  Progress from that point to the adopted charter change covered a little over 10 years. 

Once the idea was enshrined in the Charter, the hard work was just beginning.  Then Councilwoman Laura Chick drew the short straw and was charged with defining and enacting a real “Plan” to guide the formation and certification of the local councils.  The resulting Plan, adopted in May of 2001, wasn’t perfect but it got the ball rolling.  

Around the City, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Noah Modisett, Mark Siegel and I put together the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils in an effort to direct the energy of over 100 groups throughout the City=s sprawling geography toward navigating the Certification process.  In June of 2001, Mayor Jim Hahn tapped me to chair the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, (known by the acronym BONC) along with Ron Stone, Tony Lucente, Jimmie Woods-Gray, Mary Louise Longoria and Pat Herrera-Duran .  We were charged with certifying as many Councils as quickly as possible in all areas of the City.  By 2005, we had certified almost 90 Neighborhood Councils from Wilmington to West Hills to Boyle Heights. 

Given the challenges along the way, some compromises were inevitable.  A true neighborhood where all stakeholders have a sense of common ownership probably numbers no more than 5,000 residents.  If that rule had been applied to Los Angeles the result would have been up to 800 neighborhood councils, or very likely political background noise.  Rather the Plan settled on a floor of 20,000 people per neighborhood council in the hope that a smaller number of neighborhood councils would have a bigger impact.  Looking back, that seems like a fair trade off. 

In another area, I’m less sanguine about the result.  Having served on many committees and commissions over the years, my personal experience suggests that five members is the ideal size for a board or commission.  At that level, each person has to assume responsibility for the actions of the group, even in dissent.  The interpersonal dynamics become critical in allowing the group to function.  

Seven members works, but with decreasing efficiency.  As the size of a Board, Committee or Commission grows, the contribution of each individual member is reduced in inverse proportion and power tends to concentrate in a few individuals.  In many cases BONC approved NC boards of 25, 30 or more members in an effort to promote inclusion in keeping with the Charter’s mandate that each council be given the right to determine its governance structure.  The result, however, seems at times to be less inclusion rather than more, since the added board seats tend to favor local homeowners over other stakeholders. 

Despite that issue of bias, Neighborhood Councils have greatly expanded access to City government, providing avenues for communities to access services and provide feedback to City departments.  Local concerns now have a venue to be heard, which wasn’t the case before the arrival of the councils.  Neighborhood Councils, however, haven’t yet become a force for or against legislative proposals in areas other than land use and to some extent, the budget.  That’s largely due to the entrenched political infrastructure not wanting to share its turf. 

In the end, one omission stands out to me.  At the beginning of the debate over the form of the creatures we call Neighborhood Councils, some of us argued for a sunset clause in the certification process.  By sunsetting certification on a 10 year cycle, Neighborhood Councils would be minimally accountable to BONC for their actions (or lack thereof).  A sunset clause might have facilitated one of the things we envisioned (that did not come to pass) which was a map of neighborhood councils that was constantly evolving as neighborhoods redefined themselves and the various councils succeeded in many cases, and in others, failed. 

If I could reach back and make one change, it would be to insert that sunset clause to provide greater accountability and transparency to LA’s Neighborhood Council system.  While individual board members are subject to election by stakeholders, having to account for the overall effectiveness of a neighborhood council every 10 to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners would encourage a longer term global outlook which would better serve each neighborhood and the City as a whole.

 

(Bill Christopher (photo left) was the Chair of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners during the early pioneering years of Los Angeles’ Neighborhood Councils. He oversaw the certification of 60 some NCs in a two year period, beginning in June, 2001. He now oversees development projects as the owner and CEO of Urban Concepts.)

-cw

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