Effective Neighborhood Council Leadership

What Does It Look Like? How To Achieve It.
From Issue #7 Aug 2009
Interview with Scott McNeely 

s editor and ad salesperson of The Neighborhood News I have been interacting with four different Neighborhood Councils for over ten years.  I have watched Council members and leaders come and go. Depending on the leadership, some Councils have proven more effective than others in fulfilling the mandate to actively engage with and represent the needs of their communities. I came across this interview I did in 2009 with Scott McNeely, President of the Pico Neighborhood Council. He conducted one of the most effective and pro-active Councils in the city at the time.

Oct19mcneelywebHis interactive website was mentioned in D.O.N.E.’s best practices and became a model for the redo of their own website. Thoughtful, articulate and visionary, Scott was an inspired leader with passionate ideas about community service and the responsibilities community leaders bring to their positions. He not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. I sat down with him in the summer of 2009 at CJ’s, the local restaurant on Pico and Carmona, to discuss his experience and insight as a member and leader of one of the most effective and engaging Councils in the city at that time.

How did you get involved?

I wanted to see how the area was developing and I ran across the info about Neighborhood Councils on the internet. I went to a few meetings and there were people yelling and screaming at each other, calling each other names and having tantrums and getting caught up in minutiae. They lacked objectivity and focus. They didn’t understand how to relegate work to Committees. Instead they spent their time deciding how to order stationery in a group of 30 people! They weren’t getting anything done ,so the $50,000 (recently changed to $45,000) which was being allocated to them from the city for their community wasn’t getting used. No outreach or spending of the funds. I sat in the peanut gallery for two years with Claudia Bayard, watched every meeting, and it was very dysfunctional. So when there was an opportunity to get on board I was tapped by Consuelo Gomez from one of the neighborhood block clubs and she promised me she would recruit some other capable people.  I got elected and became co-chair with Janelle Brown.

What were some of the first issues you had to address?

The prior board was constantly changing their by-laws to suit different political agendas rather than shape the by-laws to further the goals they needed to accomplish. We had to ask ourselves, “What is the focus of our organization?” We hired a mediator to come to the group for a couple of sessions to try to articulate what the group wanted to accomplish, and he mediated between all the personalities. We got some good direction, came up with a mission statement, and from that point on worked on what we could do to accomplish that mission.

What were some of those missions?

One of our missions was to empower neighborhood block clubs. We had 11 in our area and only two were highly functional. The other ones were loosely organized with no by-laws and no regular activity. We decided to pay to create their websites as a way of empowering them. It allowed us to get information to them automatically and frequently, with a minimum of update for them.

We also had to identify the commitment level of the people involved with the Council. If the group was going to accomplish anything, then we had to have performance standards, otherwise it’s meaningless. People would come and say, “What a great idea.” walk away and two months later nothing is accomplished. We had a hell of a time trying to get performance clauses passed in the new by-laws compelling Council participants to perform to certain standards. Now you have to belong to three Committees and attend 3 or 4 events per year, otherwise you are off the Board.

I imagine you got pushback for those changes?

Oh yea. Some people didn’t want to do it.

How were you able to get it passed?

There were a couple of us in the group who were regularly starting to accomplish things.  At that time their largest project cost maybe $500 and yet we had $163,000 sitting in our checking account.  Whatever money received from the city that isn’t spent one year, is rolled over to the next. So you can see the group wasn’t doing a lot of projects and they weren’t used to doing high-impact community projects.  They didn’t have relationships with churches, fire and police departments. It didn’t help when I couldn’t get phone calls returned to me from Council District 10’s (CD10) office or anyone. I think it was because of the bad reputation of the group that preceded me. It took about a year and a half to get that stuff smoothed over.

So you outreached into already established social networks and invited them into the process.

It takes more than going to meetings. You have to form relationships in the community.

Now we have all these Neighborhood Councils but, how cohesive are they?  Are they connected to each other? That is one of the difficulties. The city wanted to make Pico and Olympic one-way streets going opposite ways, effectively creating little freeways. None of the Councils who represented communities affected by this were coming together to fight a common fight. So I reached out to several other Neighborhood Councils from here to the beach and organized a response. I didn’t wear my hat as a Council member but as an activist. I made the point that if we wanted it, okay. But if we didn’t, we needed to act on it. I pulled together about 30 people in a hot room on a Sunday and started a movement to defeat this thing. We didn’t feel the impacted communities would benefit. So we organized, got active and in May of last year we won the lawsuit which compelled the city to provide an environmental impact report in order to proceed with their plan. We are open to the idea; we just want a process we can all agree on.

How long have you been President of your Council?

This is my third year, but I’ll be termed out in January. Time for fresh blood.  We had some pushback on term limits. But we have term limits for officers, life caps for being on the Board, performance clauses and we have a floating quorum actually based on the number of filled board positions rather than a hard number. We even have a requirement to have a declared alternate who must come and cast your vote if you can’t show up because we don’t do proxy. We have extreme financial transparency.  I did a small financial analysis when Claudia and I started to get involved. Out of the 92 Councils at the time (I think we have 89 now) we were 91 as far as our performance was concerned. I gauged performance by how much money was put back into the community versus how much we took in. It’s a crude but useful tool. Since then, using that model to look at what we put back into the community, we are now in the top ten.

What would you say some of the pitfalls are that Neighborhood Councils fall into?

I would say the infighting, lack of clear goals with a vision codified in the by-laws and unclear processes to meet those goals. Some of them dilute their abilities through exhaustive processes of approval. I watched some of this in other Councils and know they won’t get anything done for three months.

Sometimes you have to go to the Executive Council for approval, and if they approve, it  goes to a committee then has to come back to the Executive Council and then over to the Board.

Let the Committees do the work, then the Board's function is to ask some exploratory questions that may not have been addressed in Committee and say aye or nay to the Committee’s recommendation.  But the bouncing back and forth just slows the process down, people get exhausted and that’s when you start creating a distance between the community and the Council.

Anything else?

The Councils also need to do proactive surveying of the community.  What does the community need? Why do we wait for the community to come to us? I don’t see enough of that happening.

How is the relationship between the Neighborhood Council and City Council?

It’s ebb and flow. The NCs want to give more input and City Council would probably disagree that they need it.

What kind of input are you referring to?

Development seems to be the hot button issue more so now than ever because of the real estate boom we are experiencing. Whether or not a strip mall goes in. I think the community wants more of a voice in the process. Traditionally they haven’t had one.

It seems like the original function of NCs was to be a voice to City Hall from the communities. Is City Hall paying attention?

For the easy stuff, but they tend to not want to be bothered with big button issues like development. I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for them because of the legwork and manpower involved. Why deal with the NCs when they can make those decisions in their sleep.

I imagine one problem is that a City Council representative comes into a community with ideas and plans that may not coincide with what the larger community really wants. It can come across as paternalistic.

We are having that experience now with the Tree Well project (the metal cages placed around new street trees along Washington Blvd, covered in Eye On Wesson on the TNN website). The community doesn’t want them but for some reason we are getting them. Any outreach CD10 did was after they made the decision to install them.

One is left with the feeling that some of the outreach is for show not for function.

Some of it has been great, but others have been questionable. Since this relationship between the NCs and the Council Office is fairly new, the Office is not used to what the relationship could or should be. They are used to seeing the community as their territory.

I think this perception that City Council representatives are ruling little kingdoms is being challenged because communities are getting more involved and educated.  Asking pesky questions and expecting answers.

I think it's making a difference. We get  calls now from the Council Office where we didn’t get them before, and I think that’s great. Now I know about things sooner than 20 hours before they are getting voted on in Committee at City Hall.

Are there efforts to get all the Councils together?

They have a get-together every year, but I didn’t go to the last one. My impression in the first one was that it was an opportunity for Villaraigosa to dictate which direction he wanted things to go. It wasn’t to gather input and create a symbiotic relationship. So I had better things to do the next year.

Is there anything you want to put out there as we come to a close?

I think it’s important for Neighborhood Council leadership to meet on a regular basis. I have not met most of the leadership in Council District 10 and that worries me. Coming together is how we empower our communities to deal with CD 10 issues. We need to be sharing experiences and resources.

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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