Tue, Jan

Neighborhood Councils: More Than Pretend Power

BOB’S WORLD - A few days ago, Kevin Roderick, writing in LA Observed, rightfully criticized a story in the Los Angeles Times because it badly misstated facts about the city of Los Angeles and was misleading about our neighborhood council system. The story that Roderick questioned missed something as simple as the fact that Silver Lake is just a part of the city of Los Angeles, and not an independent municipality in its own right. 

In passing, Roderick raises a couple of issues that are of importance to those of us who participate in the neighborhood council system. In particular, he takes a stab at the dirty little secret that we have to live with: "The neighborhood council activists in Silver Lake may do great and selfless work, but the fact is that just about all such advisory councils in Los Angeles are widely ignored in their own communities." I would like to think that the reality isn't quite this bad, at least in my part of town, but making the counterargument isn't all that easy. But that's for a different part of this discussion.           

This negative judgment on our neighborhood council system is just one part of a larger question that we may also usefully explore.           

The genesis of Roderick's critique is a story in the Times with the title, In Silver Lake, some have reservations about vacation rental website. The article describes an online system which allows homeowners to do a little room renting on the side. You simply sign up with a group called Airbnb and folks will give you money.  In exchange, you provide them the equivalent of hotel accommodations. It's the internet era version of the old bed and breakfast system.           

One problem with the Times story crops up immediately, as the subheading reads, "Silver Lake officials say Airbnb, often cited as a lifeline for struggling homeowners, has taken over their community and a crackdown is under consideration."           

I won't go through an exhaustive explication. You can read the story if you like, but here's the gist: Financially strapped property owners can make enough extra money by renting out rooms to cover their mortgage payment shortfalls, or just to make a little extra scratch on the side. Apparently this has become such a popular enterprise in Silver Lake that other homeowners are becoming concerned. Neighbors see an influx of strangers, who often are in and out in days, only to be followed by the next batch.           

For those of us who have been involved in the neighborhood council movement, this is a classical topic for discussion. It has all the necessary elements: (1) Is it in our neighborhood? Check. (2) Does it involve potential disruption to our way of life because it adds strangers, foot traffic, vehicular traffic, or potential crime? Check. (3) Are the people in the area talking about it? Check. (4) Are some people becoming alarmed? Check. (5) Is it something that is simple enough that we can be for it or against it? Check. (6) Are there clear and understandable arguments on both sides? Check. (7) Are there vocal proponents and opponents who we can invite to a neighborhood council meeting? Check.           

This is actually one of the main functions of neighborhood councils. If we can't talk openly about what is happening in our own neighborhoods, why have such councils at all? If we can't hold a public meeting or hearing and come up with advice for our city officials, then why does the city Charter and city ordinance specifically invite us to do so?           

Discussing and defending our neighborhoods by offering advice to our elected officials is what we do. It's our Charter given right and duty.           

So what's the problem with the Times story that got Kevin Roderick so amused? If it were me, I would be concentrating on that misleading  phrase, "and a crackdown is under consideration." Apparently Roderick has a similar point of view, because he remarks, "Hmm: a crackdown -- by the officials of Silver Lake. There's no mention or even a hint that the reporter understands that under the Los Angeles form of government, a crackdown has to come from actual officials with legal authority, those employed by the city of Los Angeles or elected to the City Council downtown."           

Roderick has even more fun with the Times by pointing out that a blog called the EastsiderLA [http://www.theeastsiderla.com/2013/08/will-airbnb-have-to-check-out-of-silver-lake/] actually got the story right. EastsiderLA correctly explains that one committee out of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council will hold a meeting to discuss the issue. Then, the committee may send a resolution to be considered by the entire neighborhood council governing board. And if the governing board views the resolution favorably, it will ask the LA City Council to take up the question of Airbnb and equivalent companies, and consider whether governmental regulation is necessary.           

That's what we do. It's a limited form of governmental participation, but it is more than nothing. Why do I say that? There are lots of organizations that offer advice to the City Council -- homeowners groups, religious affiliations, trade organizations -- but only the certified neighborhood councils are empowered by the city Charter to advise the government on neighborhood interests. That doesn't mean that those other organizations can't. It just means that there is one special kind of body that is officially ordained by the city Charter to collect the opinions of residents, distill them into understandable elements, and communicate them as advice to our City Council representatives. And that organization is the neighborhood council.           

That, at least, is the vision. Many of us have labored for a dozen years or so to make that vision reality, and sorry to say, Kevin Roderick has a more accurate version of reality in his column than what dozens of DONE (Department of Neighborhood Empowerment) representatives and hundreds of neighborhood council governing board members would like to assert. " . . . such advisory councils in Los Angeles are widely ignored in their own communities. They may or may not be listened to by actual city officials . . . "           

This is the grand canyon separating the vision and the reality. We collect public input, we sift and sort and labor to write the best sort of advice we can, hoping to find a livable compromise that works for the good of the people, and then the City Council votes according to the people who wrote the largest campaign contribution checks. I don't know if that's precisely what Roderick meant to say, but it's not exactly a secret to us neighborhood council participants. We know the reality and continue to slog along, hoping to pick off one or two prizes along the way.           

I don't mean this to sound despairing or even cynical, because I believe that there is a way out. It just involves our thinking outside the box a little bit. And believe me, as much as I hate typing a cliche like "thinking outside the box," in this case it is the appropriate wording. Let's consider the larger question that Roderick more or less alludes to, and which is so very important for the continuing development of a legitimate governmental reform system in Los Angeles.           

Back when we had a major landslide in San Pedro, I wrote a CityWatch piece that drew the following conclusion: The neighborhood council system has become the focal point, the nexus, where people come when there is a pressing social or governmental need. In this case, the immediate problem was a gaping 600 foot gap in what had once been the top of the cliff, a slide which took the major coastal road down the hill with it. The evening after the slide, we held a community meeting. The response was that members of the community found themselves surrounded by elected officials and by the heads of city agencies. Out of that one mass meeting, a slew of agreements, new organizations, plans, and promises arose literally overnight.           

That's the positive side. Bit by bit, the community has become aware that something called a neighborhood council exists, and it's the place to come when you have something that you want to say, or when a disaster has struck, or when you just want to change something a little bit. Our elected officials will even help you get what you want as long as it's something that doesn't go against the interests of the people who make the majority of campaign donations. In short, us little folks can win a few small victories.           

At the same time, the neighborhood council system has not turned out to be a brake against the institutionalized corruption that characterizes our governmental system. The developers and giant law firms and municipal unions write those campaign checks month after month, and elected officials take the money because they want to be able to pay for all those post cards they send out right before the next election.           

So we have a giant quandary which Roderick has expressed nicely. Neighborhood councils exist and give advice, but the people with the majority of the power can ignore our advice without fear of reprisal.           

But we now have the clues to solve this riddle. Let's start with the fact that the existence of neighborhood councils is gradually becoming known to city residents. Maybe such knowledge is only partial, but it is real. Being able to collect people is the first and most important step in real reform.           

We have one little problem to get around first. Neighborhood councils are a part of city government, which automatically limits the things we can do. We cannot sue the city. We cannot spend our funds for political purposes such as opposing a candidate who is running for the City Council.           

But guess what? Organizations that are not part of the city government can do all of these things. It's true that neighborhood councils are part of the government, but they are also the nexus where lots of people come together every month. People who attend neighborhood council meetings get to know each other, and once they know each other, they can branch out and do new things.           

In other words, the neighborhood councils have become most useful as social magnets, out of which arise new, independent movements.           

Here's the best example I know. Several years ago, a wealthy developer tried to create a huge development that would have brought thousands of people and cars into a congested area of San Pedro. The neighborhood council leaders had, by then, become well established as community leaders. A few of them got together and formed a looseknit, fairly informal group called R Neighborhoods R1. We can forgive them the pun, because they proceeded to collect 14,000 signatures on a petition that was delivered right into the hands of the City Council representative. And that petition wasn't in favor of the development, as you might guess.           

The social and political ties that had developed over the years of neighborhood council function worked just as well in the new context.           

So here's the secret: The government is funding the process whereby we create these social and political linkages. Most of the time, we will use them in the way the City Council folks want -- we won't rock their boats or go against most of what they are trying to do. But at some point, we may decide that enough is enough, and we will simply reorganize in a non-governmental way. It worked for R Neighborhoods R1, and it can work if the City Council decides to raise our electric rates or water bills unreasonably.           

So yes, Kevin Roderick got it right in his recent LA Observed remarks. The elected city officials treat us with contempt when we try to push the envelope. But what they haven't quite figured out is that the neighborhood council system is now too large to go away. 

Let's take that Silver Lake Neighborhood Council that was looked at with such skepticism, to put it mildly. Like most neighborhood councils, it has a governing board in overall charge. There are 21 members of that board. 

If you look at the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council website, you will see a socially connected, industrially powerful group of people, ranging from an accomplished actress to a director, to all manner of business professionals, teachers, and last but not least, political activists of long standing. 

What's more, there are another 55 people listed as former board members. In other words, the Silver Lake area alone is well on its way to its first hundred board alumni. And when you think about it, every board member, former or current, is a political activist, and each one is an opinion leader for a circle of friends and relatives.           

Shorter version: There are lots of us, and we are in the system for a reason.           

One more little clue that will lead to an invitation to a party, for anybody who has had the fortitude to read this far.           

If the City Council should take the campaign contributions and vote out a bill that will increase our electric bills or water bills out of hand, we have recourse. It only takes about 25,000 petition signatures to put a referendum on the city ballot. And once on the ballot, what are the chances that voters will reject increases in water rates? Pretty good, I should say.           

Equally, if the City Council really gets out of hand, it doesn't even take those 25,000 signatures to put a City Councilman into a recall election. It's pretty much the political activity of last resort, but we may be at the last resort one of these days.           

That's what I mean by the phrase "thinking out of the box." This September 28, 2013, we will be having the neighborhood council Congress at the LA City Hall. One of the sessions will be called Thinking Out of the Box: Gaining Real Political Power instead of Just Pretending

Here's the description: "Neighborhood council participants complain bitterly that they are ignored or insulted by elected officials. This workshop will explore ways to build and keep real political power that goes beyond just begging for favors. We will explore the use of the neighborhood council as the point of connection for the creation of non-governmental organizations (how this was used to defeat a powerful developer in the Harbor area), the use of the referendum and recall power, the MOU, and other proposals. Panelists include those people who developed the system from the beginning and were instrumental in winning serious reforms."           

Be sure to register for the Congress, and think about attending our reform coalition workshop. I expect the really angry people to be there.           

One little note on usage: According to state law, legal opinion, and city legislation, neighborhood councils are legislative bodies as created and defined by the City Charter and the enabling ordinances. The members of their governing boards are elected officials who are subject to state laws involving ethics and conflict of interest. We may not have much power, but we are elected officials. 

There are other elected officials who have much more power, and there are even unelected employees of the city government who have enormous amounts of power. We may only have the power to evaluate government activity and to advise, but that power is real, and we are officials.


(Bob Gelfand is a founder of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council and former President of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition. He is probably best known for negotiating a compromise agreement with the city over neighborhood council bylaws revisions and for pushing for the return of neighborhood council elections via the Elections Taskforce. He can be reached at [email protected]





Vol 11 Issue 72

Pub: Sept 6, 2013