Ryu’s Reforms Nix “Starbucks Stakeholder” But Maybe Too Late for 2019 Neighborhood Council Elections

GUEST WORDS--Rules for who can vote in the city’s neighborhood council elections — and presumably run for board seats — were made stricter by a Los Angeles City Council committee Tuesday, but it is unclear if such a change can take place for nearly half of the city’s 2019 neighborhood council elections, due to a timing glitch.

(Photo above: Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu in a photo from 2017. Photo: City Council Office District 4.)

While a change to the so-called “stakeholder status,” brought to the forefront by Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu (Council District 4), was approved by the city’s Health, Education and Neighborhood Councils Committee, of which Ryu chairs, December 11th, it was done too late to take effect for the first round of 2019 neighborhood council elections.

To work as intended, the reforms still have to be approved by the full Los Angeles City Council, which went into recess today for the winter holiday and won’t reconvene until after the New Year.

Complicating matters, according to Los Angeles Municipal Code, such changes, like Ryu’s reforms, cannot be made within a week of the start of an “election cycle,” which starts this weekend.

The city has about 100 neighborhood councils, whose elections are conducted on a rolling basis, starting March 31st and ending June 20th.

That would have been plenty of time for the new reforms to be firmly in legislative place after a January 2019 City Council OK, except that a window opens for candidate filings 105 days prior to each election.

That means, this Sunday, December 16th is when the election “window” opens for potential candidates to file for the first seven neighborhood council elections, including East Hollywood and three in Hollywood, specifically Hollywood Hills West, Hollywood Studio District and Hollywood United.

Another 44 councils have early schedules as well and could be shut out of using the new reforms, including having to follow the city’s previous rules on whom can vote in such elections — known colloquially as the “Starbucks stakeholder status” — where anyone showing two receipts from a business in the area, say for a cup of coffee, could be eligible to vote in the election.

The committee voted to mandate that only those who work, live, own real property in an area can have a say in such elections. Additionally the new definition says people can also vote if they are a member of a community organization that has a physical address in the area and has been in existence for at least one year at the time of the election.

“We cannot change the definition for 2019,” neighborhood council elections, Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott said at the December 11th hearing, “unless you do it before Sunday.”

Some close to the issue had hoped Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson would have called for a special City Council meeting today to button up the issue in light of the timing snafu, as Ryu’s intent, according to his staffers was that the reforms be in place for all neighborhood council elections in 2019.

But Wesson did not. Nor did his staff return a call for comment.

While many neighborhood council leaders are applauding Ryu’s reforms, they are frustrated by the glitch in the timeline, specifically regarding any delay of implementing the new “stakeholder status” definition, which if not fixed now would have to wait until 2021 elections to be implemented.

“This is a serious error on the shoulders of many when you have a councilmember that is trying his best to strengthen neighborhood councils,” said Anne-Marie Johnson, co-chair of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council (SLNC).

According to staffers from Ryu’s office, he was unaware of the timing problem until it was pointed out to him by the City Clerk at the December 11th committee.

From Johnson’s point of view, the error was made by a string of city  departments, including the Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment, the city agency that oversees the city’s neighborhood councils; the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office and the Los Angeles City Clerk.

“Someone dropped the ball,” Johnson said. “To me, this is a big oops. This is troubling.”

A written request for answers from Wolcott, the City Clerk, regarding how the timing problem occurred and why Ryu had not been made aware of it, was not returned.

Additionally, a request for information from the Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment’s General Manager, Grayce Liu, was referred to the city clerk.

The SLNC’s Johnson also scoffed at the notion that the later elections might be able to use the new rules, while those scheduled earlier, could not.

“Why should some neighborhood councils be treated at a lesser value than others,” she said. “This is gerrymandering at it’s finest.”

Currently, according to Council District 4 staff, Ryu is trying to create a workaround for the problem, called an “administrative action,” which would allow the City Clerk to put the “intent” of the reforms in place now for all the 2019 elections, prior to the expected City Council vote of approval in January.

“We hope to resolve any issues in order to implement this change in time for [Neighborhood Council] election voting next year, as well as to continue to move forward with implementing the many other changes that were recommended by the committee,” Ryu spokesperson Estevan Montemayor said in a statement.

While a dozen reforms for the system were approved by the committee, including allowing neighborhood councils to “roll over” some unused funds from year to year and holding all council elections on the same day to allow the city to better advertise them in hopes of greater turnout, the issue of revising and clarifying who can vote and run in such elections, is the most far-reaching.

Over the years, the so-called “Starbucks stakeholder” definition has allowed some interest groups to game the system, by bussing in outside voters to a local election in an effort to gain a majority on a council to push a specific cause.

Such has happened before, in Eagle Rock and in Silver Lake.

Today, the concern persists among neighborhood council leaders who fear similar take-overs could occur, especially by a relatively new advocacy group called Abundant Housing LA. (AHLA)

According to the group’s website, one of its missions is to get its members on neighborhood councils in order to push for more housing in Los Angeles, in what has become known as the YIMBY movement, an acronym for “Yes In My Backyard,” as opposed to NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard.)

Neighborhood councils are typically the first stop for developers who want to gain community support for new development. While the council’s imprimatur is only advisory in nature, such still can go along way in helping a new project get approved by the city.

The organization did have some influence in two neighborhood councils elections last spring in Westwood and Los Feliz.

“Abundant Housing LA … They want to take over the neighborhood councils,” said James O’Sullivan, who has been involved with the neighborhood council system, in the Mid-Wilshire area, for years.

O’Sullivan, who is no longer on a neighborhood council but remains involved with city and neighborhood issues with the Miracle Mile Residential Assoc., and “Fix the City,” which has sued Los Angeles over land-use issues, also said if the stakeholder status reforms won’t be in place for all the city’s 2019 neighborhood council elections, an “[expletive] storm will hit [Ryu].”

Anastasia Mann, President of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council echoed this sentiment, but did not point directly at AHLA.

“There is a concern there is a group of people out there, presumably within the development community that want to stack neighborhood councils with pro-development,” she said. “Our council is not against every development project. There are a lot of issues. That’s the NIMBY” moniker, she said, that gets hung on some neighborhood councils and it is “inappropriate and it’s not correct.”

According to city records, AHLA did file 25 letters to the city regarding Ryu’s reforms during a public comment period. Advocacy groups often file such letters in support or opposition to city motions.

But some have questioned why a housing advocacy group cares about neighborhood council reforms.

“I believe it’s common knowledge amongst true neighborhood advocates that Abundant Housing LA are pro-gentrification real estate lobbyists posing as ‘grassroots activists,'” said Mark F. Mauceri, a longtime board member of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, who lost his seat in that council’s election last spring to a newcomer endorsed by AHLA on social media and on flyers.

A request for an interview with AHLA was not returned on deadline.

As a member of Abundant Housing LA, I believe that [neighborhood councils] should serve the needs of the many, not the aesthetic preferences of the few,” the group said in its two-dozen public comment drop, which was a form letter sent from individual members.

While it appears the group did not take exception to the tightening of the definition of whom can vote and run in neighborhood council elections, they did say they supported on-line voting in neighborhood council races, which has been tested previously by the city, but of which some close to the issue say is still relatively easy to game.

The group also indicated support for the idea that undocumented individuals should be allowed to vote in neighborhood council elections.

During the public comment at the December 11th committee meeting, some argued that the looser stakeholder status definition should remain especially for those attached to a certain culture or enclave, such as Koreans who wish to vote in Koreatown elections, even if they don’t live or work in the area.

“Support those that want to participate [in neighborhood council elections] no matter wherever they live in Los Angeles,” said James Ahn.

Another speaker indicated the Korean community had over 13,000 signed petitions in support of “keeping the definition of [stakeholder] to be more inclusive than exclusive.”

And Tad Yenawine, of the Echo Park Neighborhood Council, said any change to the definition would be a “real blow.”

“It’s one of the few places,” he said, that people, including the undocumented, “can be properly represented.”

But, the majority of the speakers said they thought differently.

Nina Royal, who said she’s been involved with the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council for 14 years, said she resents the old stakeholder status.

“We’ve had people come as far as Long Beach to vote in our elections,” she said. “This is not right.”

Ryu and others involved in crafting the reforms have been gathering information and feedback from various neighborhood council members over the last handful of months during a “listening tour.”

The councilmember also requested written feedback from the city’s neighborhood councils, of which one-third responded.

(This article was posted originally on Dec 14 in the Los Feliz Ledger. Allison Cohen is the publisher of the Ledger.)