Dividing the Neighborhood Council Largesse
- Bob Gelfand
GELFAND’S WORLD-Last Spring, the city of Los Angeles created a new neighborhood council in the pocket sized area known as Hermon. As numerous people pointed out at the time, the Hermon Neighborhood Council has a resident population of less than 4,000, making it 25 times smaller in population than some neighborhood councils. The problem is that under the city rules, every neighborhood council receives an equal stipend from the city. At the moment, that amounts to $42,000 per year for each of the 97 councils.
As I pointed out at the time, this meant that Hermon NC would have approximately $10 per person to spend over the course of a year, in contrast to the fifty cents per person that the larger councils have.
It wasn't difficult to predict that people would object. The current system violates normal concepts of fairness, and suggests an elemental laxness in the way the city operates.
Not surprisingly, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC), which oversees the neighborhood council system, has been under pressure to suggest a remedy to the City Council. But rather than simply hold a public hearing and craft a resolution directly, the BONC has chosen to turf the question to a group of volunteers, some 24 in number. The idea seems to be that a broadly representative group of experienced neighborhood council participants will be able to get their minds around both the smaller complexities and the broader simplicity of the question. Then, they will come up with a reasonable recommendation. At least that is the hope.
Unfortunately, although the first meeting of the Funding Equity Working Group is a mere 9 evenings away as of the time of this article, we haven't been told who has (or will be) appointed to that body.
In fact, when I chatted with other would-be Working Group volunteers at the LA Neighborhood Council Coalition (LANCC) meeting, none of us had heard either No or Yes. Worse yet, people in my part of the city are generally unaware that there is supposed to be an official application available, in spite of protestations by city employees that email announcements had long since gone out. So maybe yours truly and my friends at LANCC will be on the working group next week, or maybe we won't.
In any case, I offer two thoughts to the Working Group for consideration.
The first is to read my earlier article linked above. In brief, the simple solution is to come up with some baseline funding level (most people suggest $5,000 - $7,500) which will cover the direct costs that are similar for all neighborhood councils, large and small. That baseline stipend can cover items such as recording machinery and paying someone to take notes at meetings. Then, add additional funding proportional to the population residing within the neighborhood council's district. This additional funding will provide for costs that go up in proportion to population, such as the printing of a newsletter and its required postage.
In my original article, I calculated how such a system would work out for neighborhood councils small, average, and large. Most of us would be just fine under the new calculations. The largest neighborhood councils would be able to function at a higher level, particularly in terms of communicating with their constituents.
In a recent conversation with an experienced neighborhood council leader, it was pointed out to me that there are additional expenses such as translation services that fall on some councils disproportionately. This is a legitimate concern. There is a simple solution. Since providing translation services is something that is required by law, payment for such services should fall under the budget of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE: the city agency charged with day to day operation of the council system). If a DONE field staffer decides that providing a translator is required, then DONE can pick up the tab. The same rule should be applied to analogous issues such as providing policing services to councils that have a need.
A more ambitious proposal
The Working Group could "go rogue" and consider the various problems, both funding and organizational, that plague the current system. For example, a system of smaller neighborhood councils (5-10,000 people), limited solely to residents, would serve a slightly different purpose than the current system, but would be more effective and would have much more political credibility.
Such a reformed system could not exist under the current rules for funding because it would require (unnecessarily) the expenditure of four or five times the current cost. A working group that is tasked with considering equitable distribution of city resources ought to think about the wider picture and might consider making such recommendations.
The Working Group's suggestions won't have the force of law, but they would serve a useful purpose by breaking the ice on a topic that some of the system's original founders have been quietly talking about in private.
We have a historical precedent for a working group that went rogue. During and after the American Revolution, the former colonies banded together under the Articles of Confederation. The ensuing weakness led to the creation of a convention which we now refer to as the Constitutional Convention. At the time, people expected it to create some patches that would be pasted onto the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the convention replaced the original system with a completely redesigned model for a government.
It's time to reconsider the overall design and operation of the neighborhood council system here in Los Angeles. At the very least, we should define and separate the interests of residents from that of businesses and commuters.
In addition, we should define and clarify the purpose of neighborhood council funding. Should the councils continue to function as low level granting agencies, tossing a few thousand dollars to the local homeless shelter, a few hundred dollars to the local elementary school library, and a few thousand dollars to the Fourth of July festival? Or should we function as the peoples' lobby, the way we did in the first couple of years of operation before the city funded us to such a lavish level?
These are legitimate questions which -- after a decade and a half of our existence -- ought to be considered in light of experience.
Perhaps this particular Working Group isn't the place to consider such weighty matters. But they are overdue for consideration. An alternative approach is to form a Reform Caucus or Reform Alliance where we can consider such matters at leisure.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)