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Why Do Neighborhood Councils Matter?

DEEGAN ON LA-“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” according to Senator Elizabeth Warren. This familiar political aphorism has relevance no matter what level of politics you exist in, from the local community level to a city, state or the national level. 

How to get a seat is simple: get elected. How to do that on the community level, a place where foundational decisions can be made about the neighborhoods we live in, can mean joining a homeowner or residential association and running for one of their board seats, or getting elected to the board of your Neighborhood Council in a City Clerk supervised pubic election. 

What good is a neighborhood council and why make the effort to be a NC board member? Meetings can last for hours, it’s a voluntary position of service to your community with practically no tangible benefits; not all issues appeal to all members, and stakeholder public comment can be contentious. Yet, the official pro or con vote by a NC board can carry more weight than the opinions or actions of other community organizations. This is because the purpose of establishing Neighborhood Councils back in 1999 was to give community feedback to the city. 

Communities and residents in the San Fernando Valley, and later San Pedro, complaining that City Hall took tax revenues from them but otherwise ignored them, mounted aggressive secession movements that would have severed them from the city of Los Angeles. To address this and other issues, a Charter amendment was voted in that set up the NC system as official organs of city government. Board seats are for two years. Annual budgets are provided to each NC. Their votes on land use, public safety and transportation issues receive attention from City Hall. And, the ability to submit official Community Impact Statements helps downtown politicos understand how their decisions may impact communities. All these features and benefits are exclusive to NCs and differentiate them from homeowner and residential groups. 

Being a clearing house for how the community sees a project impacting the community is a critical value of neighborhood councils. All business that goes before the city council committees, and then the full council, are identified with a Council File number that designates where you go to find the file with all that info. That’s where NC decisions and advisories to the city also live. 

One of the most challenging parts of running for a Neighborhood Council seat is determining if you qualify as a “stakeholder.” The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) has been plagued for years by how to answer this question. The current “stakeholder” definition is found in Section 1.6 of the 2019 Neighborhood Council Election Handbook which is published by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), the city department that oversees Neighborhood Councils. (BONC, in turn, oversees DONE.) 

Stakeholders are defined as those who live, work or own property in the neighborhood or who declare a stake in their neighborhood as a community interest stakeholder. The latter is defined as a person who affirms a substantial and ongoing participation within the NC’s boundaries and who may be in a community organization such as, but not limited to, educational, non-profit or religious organizations. All stakeholders, when running as a candidate or voting, must specify a qualifying address within the NC’s boundaries to participate. Stakeholder claims cannot be based on participation occurring outside of a given NC’s boundaries.” 

The next questions are commonly: 

“What seat do I run for?” Most seats are defined and have specific qualifications. Matching yourself up to what fits for you is generally easy. 

“When is my NC election?” Elections are scheduled to run from March 31 to June 2, depending on region. Find out when yours is here.  

“Which Neighborhood Council do I belong in?” This link will answer that question, as well as provide you with other important information about your neighborhood’s official resources. 

“When do I file as a candidate, and what is required in that process?” Look in the handbook for election timelines and be prepared to submit a short “candidate statement” and a flattering picture of yourself. 

Finally, tell all your friends and social networks within your neighborhood council boundaries that you are running, and ask them to vote for you. Only residents in your NC boundaries can vote, so be sure to focus on them exclusively. Your get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort may include asking your homeowner or residential association if they are preparing a “preferred slate of candidates,” then ask them to include you on it. 

Complaining is easy. So to avoid just “remaining on the menu,” get into the action by running for a seat at the table!

 

(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at timdeegan2015@gmail.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.