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City Councilmember Takes a Swing at LA’s Neighborhood Councils

GELFAND’S WORLD--I don't know why City Council representative Monica Rodriguez (CD 7th district) would want to make trouble for mayoral candidate and fellow City Council representative Joe Buscaino, but that's what she just did, only a few weeks ago. 

She did it by taking a swing at the neighborhood council system. This means that neighborhood council board members as far away as San Pedro will have to review what she is doing and -- to the extent that what she is trying to accomplish makes trouble for us -- we will have to take time and effort to defend our interests. That means that we go to Joe Buscaino and complain, and our complaints will put him in the uncomfortable position of either ignoring his constituents (us) or disagreeing with his fellow council member. And he's running for higher office. 

Come to think of it, Rodriguez has put most of the rest of her fellow City Council members -- Paul and John and Mike, etc. --  in the same position as Joe. 

How do I know this? Well, Monica's motion before the City Council has already been discussed in pretty uncomplimentary terms at the Los Angels Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC). It will probably be opposed officially by a number of neighborhood councils as their board schedules begin to catch up with this untidy bit of city business. 

So what's this all about? What did she complain about, and what changes does she wish to make in the system? 

We have a partial answer, in that we can read her motion, even if we can't quite figure out what she is trying to accomplish. 

Basically, it comes down to the fact that in some neighborhood council elections, voters are required to provide tangible proof of eligibility. Either they can demonstrate that they live somewhere within the boundaries of a voting district, or they can show that they work in the district, or even that they own property somewhere within those same boundaries. That's the broad definition for all Los Angeles neighborhood councils -- the "Lives, Works, or Owns Property" standard. 

In normal years where people showed up at a physical polling place, most voters pulled out their wallets, showed a driver license, and that was that. Some people who don't drive would provide some other form of qualifying document. The City Clerk's office, which now runs most of our neighborhood council elections, has a pretty generous list of qualifying methods. 

In practice, neighborhood councils are asked to decide whether their elections will be run by self affirmation (ie: you don't need to show ID) or requiring documentation. For any given neighborhood council, it's one or the other, and the rule holds for all voters in that council's election. 

An aside: I've watched and participated in neighborhood council elections that were run one way and then in later years changed to the other. To be precise, we once had an election in which the administrator decided to treat everything as self affirmation. That year, we were overrun by voters from as far away as Ventura, voting for a special interest group. When later elections required some form of ID, things went back to normal. 

It turns out that at this stage in our evolution, neighborhood council elections are not like regular citywide elections or national elections. Our group was glad to switch back to the proof-of-eligibility rule. And it never seemed like an intrusion on voters' rights. Unlike the old Jim Crow states which used voter ID rules specifically to limit poor people and minority voters from participating, we are not using the system like that. 

But apparently Monica Rodriguez thinks differently. 

She argues that requiring a neighborhood council voter to provide ID is voter suppression. She doesn't hint around at it, she says it overtly (see below, in the section put in bold type). Not only does she claim that it is voter suppression, she makes the direct charge against one body -- the Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council -- as engaging in this suppression. She is careful not to impute motive or malice, but she argues directly that voter suppression is something that "many have experienced during the current Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council election." 

For those who are curious about just what Rodriguez said, let's clarify. Rodriguez filed a motion (seconded by councilman Gil Cedillo) in the City Council. That motion was given a council file number and referred to the subcommittee which oversees neighborhood council matters. Here is the entire motion, put here in italics:  

Motion 

The Neighborhood Council system was established in 1999 to connect LA's diverse communities to City Hall. Neighborhood Council board members are volunteers, elected to office by the members of their community, with the purpose of ensuring that the diverse voices from every neighborhood are heard by City Hall. Democracy cannot exist without a fair electoral process at every level of government. As the closest form of government to the people, Neighborhood Councils must ensure their elections are inclusive, accessible and transparent. 

Today, the City of Los Angeles is home to 99 Neighborhood Councils, each with its own election process. Where a person lives in the city determines the inclusivity of the process to cast a ballot, including whether photo identification is required. Requiring photo identification to vote, although seemingly unobstructive, is voter suppression, as many have experienced during the current Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council election. Obtaining identification is a significant burden for many groups as IDs can be costly and the travel required is often an obstacle for people with disabilities, the elderly, and people living in rural areas. 

As voter suppression efforts take root across the United States, it is even more important that the City of Los Angeles reconfirms our commitment to voter rights, and equal and consistent elections throughout the neighborhood council system, ensuring that everyone who wants to participate in this grassroots democracy, is provided the same opportunity as their neighbors in other communities. 

I THEREFORE MOVE that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment be instructed to report with a survey of Neighborhood Council Election rules, with an analysis on how the bylaws of different Neighborhood Councils vary on election issues, including, but not limited to: eligibility requirements for Board seats, governing board structure, stakeholder requirements, and stakeholder verification. 

I FURTHER MOVE that the City Attorney be requested to report on the City Council's authority to standardize election rules across Neighborhood Councils, and potential limits to this authority. 

I FURTHER MOVE that the City Clerk be directed to report on the costs associated with administering the existing nonstandardized Neighborhood Council election systems, and provide recommendations for streamlining a Neighborhood Council elections, and potential cost savings that could result from standardizing Neighborhood Council election rules. 

APR 14 2021

ARTS, PARKS, HEALTH, EDUCATION, &NEIGHBORHOODS

PRESENTED BY:~~ MONICA RODRIGUEZ

Councilwoman, 7th District

SECONDED BY Gil Cedillo 

So there you go. The Sunland Tujunga Neighborhood Council (STNC) is charged, convicted, and about to be sentenced for participating in an election that was, after all, run by the office of the City Clerk of the City of Los Angeles. Not only that, but the requirement for voter identification is one that is used in neighborhood council elections all over the city, not just in this one far-off place. 

As I said, my neighborhood council also requires identification, and I haven't seen a lot of complaints. It may be that there are complications in this year of the Covid, because the city cancelled all of the live elections and ordained that everything has to be vote by mail. This system is, of course, further complicated by the fact that you can be an eligible voter even if you don't live in the district. 

None of these complications are the fault of the STNC. They had to take what the city has handed to them, just as all the rest of us have had to do. 

We might also take note of the imperial way in which the City Council member orders the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to report "with a survey of Neighborhood Council Election rules" and so on and so forth. Why not just ask her own paid staff in her own office to look on the internet at EmpowerLA.org and look it up? It's all there, as anyone even half familiar with the system would know. 

Why should any of the rest of us be concerned? 

There are two reasons. The first is simply that one of our fellow councils has been unreasonably smeared by an elected official with a considerable amount of power. Even if she doesn't exactly have power over my part of the city, we as neighborhood councils have to defend the entire system lest some other City Council member think to do something similar. We've been in this situation before, and it always wastes our time and requires effort. 

The second reason is even more compelling.

The point is very simple. We've negotiated the balance of power between the city government and our councils several times before, and we're tired of having to keep defending our turf. They keep gnawing at our borders, and we have to waste hundreds of hours of our time -- involving dozens of meetings -- and all this has just been to maintain even a mediocre status quo. 

The implicit message of the Rodriguez motion is that the City Council should redo the entire system (because redoing our board membership definitions would be to do just that) and what will come out of the City Council will undoubtedly be worse than what we have now. 

Just for fun, let's take a quick look at what the STNC bylaws actually prescribe: 

ARTICLE X ELECTIONS

Section 1: Administration of Election - The STNC’s election will be conducted pursuant to all City ordinances, policies and procedures pertaining to Neighborhood Council elections.

Section 2: Governing Board Structure and Voting - The number of Board seats, eligibility requirements for holding any specific Board seats, and which Stakeholders may vote for the Board seats are noted in Attachment B.

Section 3: Minimum Voting Age - Except with respect to a Youth Board Seat, a stakeholder must be at least 16 years of age on the day of the election or selection to be eligible to vote. [See Admin. Code §§ 22.814(a) and 22.814(c)]

Section 4: Method of Verifying Stakeholder Status - Voters will verify their Stakeholder status by providing acceptable documentation. 

And that's it. It's about as boiler-plate an election section as I can imagine. It accepts the authority of the city and state, agrees to follow the laws, and even contains the line about "acceptable documentation," which means straightforwardly that the STNC will participate in an election that is run by the City Clerk and that includes the Clerk's rules for what is acceptable identification. 

So What's the Beef? 

I don't think it's a big secret that there has been some stress and contention in the STNC and its elections. There appear to be at least two factions, and one obviously won in the recent election. That doesn't mean that the various factions in the community couldn't work together on some things. It just means that in an election in which not everybody wins, somebody is going to have hard feelings. 

My guess is that Monica Rodriguez is taking sides in an election that already happened. Maybe she is just naive and took the word of one side over that of the other. Maybe she has something else in mind -- maybe she is trying to be a do-gooder but without first developing a decent understanding of the system. In any case, she now has authored and introduced a motion that will put hundreds of neighborhood council representatives on guard. 

In so doing, she has put future elections in jeopardy and riled up a lot of people who will have to deal with the City Council's actions. The subcommittee that oversees the neighborhood council system will be meeting this week. It would be a good thing if that committee would quietly deep-six this untimely item. 

Please note that it's not a bad thing per se to consider and reconsider the neighborhood council system including its elections. But that language in the motion directly attacking STNC calls into question the motives and desired outcome of this whole procedure.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)

-cw