Neighborhood Councils Need to Grow a Pair

GUEST WORDS-The first neighborhood council board was seated in 2002, and since then the neighborhood councils have collectively failed to live up to one important expectation -- to fundamentally improve government. 

One hope of the founders was that the councils could act as powerful lobbyists or advocates for positive change in their communities and citywide.  

Yet, we continue to see councils fighting against objectionable land use projects and city policies, and they’re losing more than winning. 

Former LA City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky dished out a remedy to the councils that has been forgotten. To paraphrase him, he told the activists that if they wait for decisions to reach the city council, one its committees, or a city commission before chiming in, it’s almost always too late. 

What he explained was that by the time a matter has traveled through the process to the public hearing stage, lobbyists and city staff have had private conversations with the councilmembers and their staffs, commitments have been given, making the ability for anyone else to be heard much more difficult, if not impossible. 

Neighborhood councils need to inject themselves into the process even before the drafting stage.  And they can’t wait to be invited to the table.  

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) website used to include this tiny bit of wisdom on its home page: “Power isn’t given, it’s taken.” 

I put those words there to motivate neighborhood councils, and because after having been a city councilmember’s chief-of-staff for 25 years, I knew it to be true. My successor at DONE, who was appointed by the new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, removed the words.  

The day I quit as DONE’s general manager was the day the mayor’s office told me that I was to do nothing to help the councils organize themselves as a citywide force.  

The office explained their reasoning this way: As long as the neighborhood councils remain balkanized, they can only be a pain in the ass to their councilmembers. But if they are able to come together citywide, they could oppose some of the mayor’s proposals. 

I believe that there are two reasons for this continued timidity. 

One is a far too common belief among some neighborhood council leaders that they need to maintain a good working relationship with their council member(s). They feel they can’t risk antagonizing them.  This attitude ignores the reality that you can’t win through weakness. 

Organized labor has a good model to follow. When the negotiations, over a new contract to cite one example, get tough, they get tough. Labor unions aren’t shy about publicly criticizing elected officials, picketing City Hall, holding news conferences, and filling the council chamber with members, or even warm bodies, to pressure the decision-makers.  

But once an agreement is reached, the elected officials respect or fear (it doesn’t matter which one) the power of the unions. And remember, no one gave labor this power. They took it. 

The neighborhood councils can grab this kind of power too. Do the math. There are around 2,000 neighborhood council board members. Add in former board members, members who call themselves activists but don’t serve on a board, and some of their immediate family members and friends. That’s a ton of people. 

The second part that is needed to build this powerful force is at least one person to do the organizing and lead the way. Only once did someone rise up and coordinate a citywide victory. 

Years ago, Jim Alger believed the Department of Water and Power (DWP) was going to ask the city council to approve a far too generous water rate hike. Rather than take an unrealistic position against any increase, Alger, thinking part of it was probably justified, organized the councils to defeat the part of the increase that was excessive. 

Not only was the rate increase pared down, but Alger joined with other leaders and got the DWP to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the neighborhood councils that spelled out how the councils would be notified of proposed increases, and how their voices would be heard. 

The MOU was a monumental achievement. Filled with a sense of power, the councils started working on an MOU with the Department of Transportation. Then came Mayor Villaraigosa, and the project was dropped by the city. 

In the coming months I’ll be offering blueprints that neighborhood councils can use to flex their muscles once again. Keep reading CityWatch. 

I’m not naïve enough to believe that any action will result from this effort, but I can’t meet my maker without knowing I made my best effort.  

It’s time for the neighborhood councils to stop being the school yard bully’s victim, and start kicking some butt.


(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].)