Here’s the problem: 95, soon to be 96, individually functioning Neighborhood Councils cannot be fully supported by a Department staff of 20. With current staffing, we have one staff person for every 150 board members, who have an average turnover rate of 40% every two years. Lack of basic knowledge of what and how Neighborhood Councils are supposed to function and why they exist results in unstable boards.
Tax payer dollars have many restrictions, and there are legal and criminal consequences if they are misspent or abused. We have all seen what happens when a few bad apples tarnish the image for the vast majority of hardworking and committed civic leaders.
While some Neighborhood Councils work in collaboration with their neighboring Neighborhood Councils, most work in isolation often re-recreating the wheel which wastes precious volunteer time and limited funds. The result is fewer Neighborhood Councils focusing on community issues and exercising their advisory function, creating greater liabilities for the city in terms of misuse of public funds and less robust participation – which is the lifeblood of a flourishing Neighborhood Council system.
Let’s use this opportunity for constructive dialogue: These motions open a unique opportunity to dialogue and propose solutions to the Mayor/Council which address the most problematic systemic weaknesses which, unless solved, will result in more struggling Neighborhood Councils thereby compromising the entire system. We have already been asked to intervene with Neighborhood Councils in areas of the city with chronically low civic participation who are on the verge of decertification.
The Department will work collaboratively with Neighborhood Council leaders to propose solutions to these problems. Our recommendations will be strongly informed by and have the support of the Neighborhood Councils because true community empowerment has never started with government.
A “one size fits all top down” solution seldom works for the Neighborhood Council system. Rather, a bottom up approach which builds upon the homegrown expertise and problem solving capacity of neighborhood leaders across the city is the way to go here.
This is an opportunity to address systemic fixes, not by requesting more staff positions, but by tapping more Neighborhood Council veterans who have become neighborhood empowerment experts and giving them more opportunities to help their neighbors.
Neighborhood Council leaders have already stepped up to support one another in a variety of ways. There are six regional and citywide alliances across the city that have grown in effectiveness over the years. We can build upon the organic way in which regional networks of Neighborhood Councils have come together around mutual interests and needs.
The Department has been working with a volunteer task force with the intent of creating opportunities for Neighborhood Councils to tap volunteer expertise in such areas as the Neighborhood Council funding program, running effective meetings, outreach, land use, emergency preparedness and other areas important to a well run Neighborhood Council.
Creating an informal but structured peer support system to tackle the most common problems and challenges of running an effective Neighborhood Council could be the approach which is both timely and appropriate for the issues confronting the Neighborhood Council system and the city at this critical evolutionary stage.
One idea suggested to me by a Neighborhood Council leader, which I share for illustrative purposes only, is creating administrative hubs of 7-12 Neighborhood Councils, who can share administrative support services, bookkeeping functions, training, outreach, etc.
The idea is to minimize the administrative workload and headaches and create a stronger foundation of support citywide. This could then free up more precious volunteer time for Neighborhood Councils to better fulfill their charter purpose.
It may even be possible for Neighborhood Councils operating within these mutual support hubs to run their own elections. In prior elections, a number of Neighborhood Councils in the northeast valley area collaborated together and coordinated their outreach efforts which leveraged their limited resources and maximized their visibility.
With minimal city staff resources, working with 9 to 10 hubs of Neighborhood Councils is far more efficient and effective than supporting 95 individual Neighborhood Councils.
It’s all about process: It is my intent to fully engage the Neighborhood Councils through the regional alliances as full partners in developing creative solutions without creating more bureaucracy or adding to the city’s fiscal problems and must tangibly benefit a volunteer driven system. We have used this approach effectively to correct the systemwide problem of inconsistent and ineffective bylaws, and we can replicate that process here.
The central question driving system improvements must be this – does the proposed method help Neighborhood Councils fulfill their original charter purpose of involving more people in city government and making government more responsive to local needs?
The needs of the Neighborhood Council system continue to evolve and change. Our Department must remain charter mission focused, but also adapt our programs and strategies to be responsive to those changing needs.
The Department’s role must become more of a facilitator and dot connector helping to connect diverse community leaders to each other and to city government in ways which increases civic engagement and a more responsive government.
Our vision is to build a flourishing and thriving Neighborhood Council movement. This can work if city government plays a more supportive and enabling role by positioning Neighborhood Councils to help themselves and each other.
(BongHwan Kim is the General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. He can be reached at: [email protected]) -cw
Tags: Paul Krekorian, DONE, neighborhood councils, council system
Vol 9 Issue 56
Pub: July 15, 2011