NEIGHBORHOODS LA - A few Saturdays ago I was honored to help kickoff the effort to review the Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils as part of a three-person panel.
Host and Commissioner Doug Epperhart started the discussion by asking each panelist what we would do differently if we had to do it all over again.
The Plan was developed after the new City Charter was adopted by the voters, and I explained to the audience that if I knew then, when I was writing the first draft of the neighborhood council system, what I know now, the structure would have been drastically different.
Without getting into details, I said that my “do over” would involve an amendment to the City Charter, and another public vote. So I focused my remarks on the much easier task of possibly amending certain features of the Plan.
This seems like a good time to revisit a proposal for a grand reshaping of the neighborhood council system. It’s called “delinking.”
When the Plan was adopted by the City Council it called for the neighborhood councils to be “as independent, self-governing, and self-directed as possible.”
The reasoning was simple. The new councils could hardly be considered “empowered,” and certainly couldn’t be effective watchdogs if they were too tightly controlled by city hall.
In that same paragraph, the Plan also prescribed that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) shall assist the councils pursue tax-exempt status and/or non-profit incorporation “to strengthen their independence.”
That looked good until the Office of City Attorney opined that the neighborhood councils, because they were created by actions of a city government agency, would be affected by the antiquated and complex Ralph M. Brown Act that was designed for all the right reasons in the ‘50s to ensure transparency in local government.
By extension, this meant that the councils also had to abide by state laws regarding access to their records, and conflicts of interest.
Instantly, DONE’s role of assisting the new councils in outreach, understanding government, being good leaders, increasing public participation, and getting things done with city government, shifted to teaching the council leaders about all the things they couldn’t do, at the risk of criminal penalties.
If I could do it, I would amend the City Charter to abolish the existing neighborhood council system and turn neighborhood councils into nonprofit organizations that would get $50,000 a year through grants. They would also get special privileges, such as the ability to have Community Impact Statements printed on agendas, participation in the city’s budget process, inclusion in the Early Notification System, free office space, free pre-election mailings, more time during public hearings, etc.
By “delinking” neighborhood councils from city hall, DONE would continue to be responsible for nurturing neighborhood councils, but its main role would be that of a grants administrator.
City money could handled by a third party that would be responsible to the city for the proper use of the funds by the neighborhood councils, thereby reducing the accounting burden on the neighborhood councils, and lots of petty squabbling that can suck the air out of the room at board meetings.
The neighborhood councils and the city would be bound through a contract so the city, DONE, or the Board of Neighborhood Councils couldn’t change the terms on a whim.
In order to receive the grant money and privileges, the councils would have to agree meet certain performance criteria, essentially that which is already required by the regulations.
A local “Sunshine Law” would be developed to ensure that meetings are open and fair -- capturing the most valuable features of the Brown Act and the other state laws, and dumping those that don’t help increase public involvement.
Once truly independent from City Hall, the neighborhood councils would be in a position to exert greater political influence. They could hire their own attorneys, sue the city, and purchase their own insurance policies and liability protections.
Getting there requires traveling a rough road unless there are enough progressive and enlightened leaders on the City Council to place such a measure on the ballot.
(Greg Nelson is a former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, was instrumental in the creation of the LA Neighborhood Council System, served as chief of staff for former LA City Councilman Joel Wachs … and occasionally writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])
Vol 11 Issue 21
Pub: Mar 12, 2013