Why Don’t They Ever Write?

LA NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS AND THE SOUND OF SILENCE - One of my guilty pleasures is to stop channel-surfing and watch at least part of the Oscar-winning western “Dances with Wolves,” every single time I turn past it on TV.

It’s an addiction, and the scene that always grabs my slightly dark sense of humor is when the title character’s boorish, foul-smelling wagon driver sees him looking at a sun-bleached human skeleton in the prairie grass – from someone killed years before -- with an arrow sticking out.

“Back east,” says the driver before exploding with laughter, “someone is asking, ‘Now, WHY don’t he write?”

Now, nearly a decade into the Neighborhood Council era of Los Angeles City -- with some Councils having received almost a half million dollars in taxpayer funds over those years -- tens of thousands of stakeholders (community members who live, work, own property, etc.) in every council area still have good cause to ask: “Why don’t I ever hear from them, directly (except maybe occasional election mailings)?  What are they working on?  What are they telling City government that ‘we’ want (and who’s this ‘we’ if it doesn’t include ‘me’)?  How can I get them to address problems I have with City services?”

Perhaps always unrealistic, and certainly vague, but still a part of the startup of every council was its promise to the City to “communicate with all stakeholders on a regular basis” -- if certified and provided with taxpayer funds every year.

Simply put, this compact with the City was called for because the #1 (and really . . . #2 and #3) reasons for creating Neighborhood Councils were so they would: “promote public participation in City governance and decision-making processes.”  But, no regular, widespread contact = no growing public participation.

That’s not to say many councils aren’t trying – but because it “seems” cheaper, efforts are more often aimed at the easiest people to reach (tech-savvy Internet users), when it’s just as often true that it’s the people living “low-tech” lives who need and use city services most.

Many see a snazzy (or even simple) website as the answer, a few use social media, or e-mails pounded out weekly to only a small percentage of the stakeholders.  But how close to the “every stakeholder” promise can that really get them? And, in this age of digital information overload and spam filters – how easy it is to simply wipe away, “delete, delete, delete” – seconds after some hardworking council volunteer hit’s “send?”

Then, there’s the very real “digital divide” where at least one-third of stakeholders in the Northeast have no Internet access. Many more are unwilling to provide their personal “digital” info for that use.

(This isn’t meant to skewer all forms of indirect communication. Local newspapers where I live, for example, regularly run ads from these citizen advisory boards, and those probably reach more people than their usual database of e-mail addresses – in part, because there are other things in newspapers that people want to read about, too.)  But the “all stakeholders” ideal is still as far away as ever.

Newsletters, a common tool for some organizations, may give some credibility to the council but what message do they end up delivering?  Is it: “Come tell us about City services”?  Or, more likely, “We’re your neighborhood council board,”  “We’ve done great things,”  “Here’s our picture,” or “Join us to fill a board vacancy.” And, the time required to prepare the many pages of content typically renders much of it outdated before it’s received.  Annually, or even quarterly, slick mailers certainly can’t give most stakeholders the details of what will be on the actual council agendas -– in the months between mailings.  It is, after all, specific and timely issues that more often draw people out to take part.

Walkers – people who volunteer or are paid to hand-deliver to every address can come closer to “all” locations – but there’s still the fenced yards and locked apartment lobbies to contend with.  Expensive brochures left on the locked front gate next to yellowing pizza order forms and grocery ads usually miss the mark, too,

But nearly every stakeholder has a mailbox, and gets daily postal delivery.  It’s still, 21st century or not, the most universal contact method and will be for a very long time.

So, a few years ago, one local community decided to go that very “low tech” route and began mailing quick and simple, photocopied postcards that invited people to the meetings – each containing only a few sentences of text about what would probably be presented, and a clear message that every stakeholder could be a part of the process by bringing their own concerns.

Starting with only a fraction of the local addresses, volunteers helped build a near-complete community roster using many different lists that were freely available. (For larger communities, paying the U.S. Postal Service to do the same is an option, and not every area has to be reached in each mailing – using a rotation throughout the

That community’s old-fashioned 29-cent (now 32-cent) postcard mailing – one week before meetings -- drew more and more people out every year that it was continued, until their participation, by all accounts, outnumbered those invited by e-mails, or all other “digital” means, council-wide.

Whatever the cost, and by any more “universal” means (reaching every address) Neighborhood Councils need to see outreach as priority #1.  After all, that’s the reason they were created.  Not just “getting the name out there” or “flying the flag” –- but getting people into the meetings where Councils define what they’ll say when advising City government.

That means putting as much money as is needed, as quickly as possible, into some way to get their message out to every stakeholder – as often as it takes to grow the response -- while there’s still a chance to get them interested.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Boulevard Sentinel … www.boulevardsentinel.com, a monthly newspaper serving the Northeast area of the City of LA. Joseph Riser is a three-term neighborhood council board member. His current focus is making sure every home and business address where he lives receives something, directly -- several times a year -- telling them about their local NC meetings … and he has the paper cuts to prove it).

Tags: Los Angeles, Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils, stakeholders

Vol 10 Issue 25
Pub: Mar 27, 2012