Want to Save LA’s Neighborhood Council System? Give It Veto Power!

GELFAND’S WORLD--I have discussed the neighborhood council system numerous times here. After much contemplation, I am led to the conclusion that we should scrap the whole thing and go for a thorough redesign. This is consistent with an earlier column in which I pointed out that we have to repeal and rewrite Article IX of the city Charter. 

In the spirit of thinking outside the box without going off into outright satire, I offer a few ideas that would radically reform and redesign the system in a way that would give it real power while, at the same time, bringing in lots more of us ordinary folks. 

The punch line to this exercise involves giving the neighborhood council system real power by giving it veto authority over City Council actions. 

That would be a major change to the system, and requires rethinking multiple aspects of the system as it exists today. It's something that the City Council would fight tooth and nail, but could be accomplished by a Charter amendment. 

I will take the elements of this proposal one at a time, starting with the least contentious and adding proposed changes as we go along. 

1) Abolish neighborhood council funding as it currently exists, or at least minimize it. 

There will be money spent on neighborhood councils, but nc spending will be redirected in a way that will better serve all Los Angeles residents. In the current system, most neighborhood councils spend a substantial part of their annual stipends funding private charities or public events such as street parties or fairs. None of these expenditures serve the original, fundamental function of the neighborhood council system, which is to let us regular people talk back to the elected politicians

In short, funding an annual music festival has some cultural value, but it is not what the system was created to do. Proponents of this kind of spending claim that it is essential to outreach, in the sense that it makes the public more aware that they have a neighborhood council. A little critical thought will reveal that the return on investment is relatively minimal for such exercises. 

There may be some need for a minimal amount of funding to handle the costs of doing business, but how many staplers and manila folders does a council actually need? Funding for defined services such as note taking and doing audio recordings of meetings should be carefully defined and limited. 

2) Publicizing the existence of our Los Angeles Neighborhood Council system should be a citywide function and not left to individual councils. 

This is a most obvious point. Many councils lack the expertise and don't have access to local newspapers (what few papers are left). Even for neighborhood councils full of savvy publicists and having access to a local newspaper, there has been a lack of public awareness. The ultimate responsibility falls on the city itself and its elected leadership. 

3) A technical but necessary reform: Rewrite the authority and function for both the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment 

This is a given. Anyone who witnessed the takeover of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council by DONE or the functioning of the Funding Equity group under the BONC will understand this directly. At this point, we have enough experience to reconsider how both organizations operate. 

4) A personal interest of mine: Bring the Neighborhood Councils into a newly designed disaster preparedness operation that works with city departments and, where indicated, across city boundaries. 

The original function of the councils was not supposed to be replacing inadequate city services with our own version of street sweeping and beach cleanup. It was to tell the government whether it was doing the job adequately. 

But we can expand the nc goals to include a critical function that goes beyond beach cleanups. With the realization that we ought to be doing a better job of educating and preparing people for floods, fires, and earthquakes, we can and should bring in the local councils. Neighborhood councils -- because they are distributed all over the city and have a closer bond with the residents than most other city organizations -- should be the leading edge for public education and preparation. 

5) Give Neighborhood Councils real power 

This is the crux. Back in the late 1990s when the twin Charter Commissions were operating, the idea of creating neighborhood councils was something of an afterthought. There was a proposal to give the local councils some say over land use decisions, but that idea was jettisoned in order to craft the grand compromise under which two competing Charter Commissions agreed to merge their proposals. 

We have to concede after all these years that the actual power is minimal. Put it this way: To the extent that neighborhood council leaders would be politically influential had the neighborhood councils never existed, they are still influential as council presidents. But the councils themselves don't have power. 

The problem is that our City Council districts are way too big -- more than a quarter of a million people -- and each one is ruled over by a single council member. 

There are two possible ways we can deal with these problems. Either 

(a) create a borough system out of the current mess or 

(b) give the neighborhood council system veto authority over City Council actions. 

We'll leave the possibility of the borough system for another time, Instead, let's consider giving real power to a widely diverse (geographically, ethnically, politically) set of people who will finally be able to function as the peoples' lobby. 

Here is one possible way of doing it: Any action by the City Council can be overridden by vote of neighborhood councils representing at least two-thirds of the inhabitants of the city. 

In other words, when the City Council allowed the Sea Breeze development to go through, a group of neighborhood councils representing 2.6 million Los Angeles residents would have voted to say no. Under the current system, this might be somewhere around 60 councils depending on which ones (bigger or smaller on the average) took up the question. 

In a system in which there are many councils, mostly small ones, it would require more councils per se, but the same fraction of the total population would still be required. 

Note that this proposal goes beyond the original Charter Commission idea of giving local councils power over certain land use decisions. This proposal gives the local councils veto power over commission appointments, the city budget, and thousands of small decisions made by the City Council on a day to day basis. 

Would this turn the city government into a hogtied system marked by stasis? Not likely. Very few City Council decisions would even be considered for review. But decisions which are flat out unfair (disenfranchisement of the city's Korean-American population in the redistricting process) or tainted (the Sea Breeze development) or both unfair and stupid (the trash haulers' monopoly) would likely provoke a citywide discussion. 

Note that we've had such discussions in the past -- the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition warned repeatedly about the trash haulers' monopoly -- but there wasn't anything we could do other than shout into the wind. 

6) Let's get on with the process of downsizing our overly large councils 

I'm taking a page from governor candidate John Cox here. Recall that he suggests dividing Assembly and state Senate districts into subdistricts of 5000 people. Each subdistrict would elect one representative and the representatives for each district (about 100 of them) would get together and select the person to vote on bills in Sacramento. 

The idea behind subdividing into areas of 5000 residents is that people can run for subdivision representative by knocking on doors and meeting people at shopping centers. The obscene cost of running a full bore campaign for an Assembly seat wouldn't exist. The cost of a campaign would be measured in paper clips and the price of printing 5000 postcards. 

The same argument holds for small neighborhood councils of 5000 residents, except that there would be more than one board member and even less cost. Still, there would be increased interest in neighborhood council participation (and therefore elections) because the position would come with the power to call for a review if the City Council did something sleazy. 

Is this proposal radical or mainstream? 

Well, in one way it's a bit far out, because the city has been run by a City Council and a mayor for a very long time. But in another way, it would be a return to the system used by most smaller cities, in the sense that major decisions over land use and spending are not left to any one person. 

The governmental structure would look a little different, but we would return to a system in which there is some oversight for major decisions that have become tainted by the power of big money. 

You can treat this as a whimsical exercise if you like. It's obviously subject to all manner of modification and/or deletion. But the serious side is that the current system of neighborhood councils has been created to have no effective power. It's time we had a discussion about how to change the system. 

By the way, when was the last time (or even the first time) that the annual Neighborhood Council Congress held a serious discussion about reforming the structure of city government and with it, the structure of the neighborhood council system?


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]) [[hotlink]]