Top 4 Misconceptions about LA’s Neighborhood Council System

By Greg Nelson

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1.  “Neighborhood councils are just advisory and need real voting power in order to be effective.”

If neighborhood councils were to have decision-making voting power, such as over land use matters, the Federal Voting Rights Act would essentially abolish the councils.

Boundaries could no longer follow neighborhood lines.  They would have to be equal in population, and could be gerrymandered.

Board members would be elected like City Council members.  Neighborhoods couldn’t customize their method of governance to fit their area. 

They would only have voting power over that which they are given.  And power that is given is power than can be taken away.  The board members, whether paid or not, would become mini-politicians and subject to all the temptations that face other elected officials who raise money for their campaigns and slush funds.

As “public lobbyists” neighborhood councils can choose whichever issues they want to pursue, as is done by the business community, unions, and community activist groups.  The power they can amass is limitless.

A better way to devolve power into the communities is to elect city commissioners or create boroughs, but neighborhood councils as we know them now would still be needed to keep all the full-time and part-time officials accountable to the public.

2.  “Only residents should be allowed to vote because they have a greater stake in the community.”

We already have the City Council that is elected this way.  It’s the representative part of our governmental system. 

The designers of the neighborhood council system felt that it wasn’t a matter of which group has the greater stake, but rather they wanted to create a place for all those who have an interest in their neighborhood to sit together as equals and share those things that separate them, and that which can bring them together. 

3.  “Neighborhood councils are an arm of city government.”

Sorry no.  The City Charter and the ordinances that followed made it clear that councils should be as independent as possible from City Hall.  One ordinance even required the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to help the councils become nonprofit entities.

Because neighborhood councils were created by government, the Office of the City Attorney later said, the councils would come under the state’s Brown Act, and therefore the Public Records Act, and Political Reform Act too. 

That triggered all sorts of new restrictions and requirements that, to this day, have made it more difficult for neighborhood councils to achieve the primary goal of the City Charter – to promote public participation in government. 

Neighborhood council board members are not city officials, and the councils aren’t city departments except to the extent they are treated as such regarding the three state laws.

The Neighborhood Council Review Commission recommended that the city enact a “Sunshine Law” that would retain the parts of the state laws that make sense for the councils, and eliminate the provisions that were aimed at City Councils.  It sits stagnant in the City Council.

4.  “It’s hard for neighborhood councils to be an effective political force because they can’t endorse candidates or spend money on ballot measures.”

This is just a bump in the road.  Officers and board members can make political endorsements and use their neighborhood council titles.  That’s gold for campaigners. 

As they have successfully done in several races, neighborhood council members can join together as individuals and hold fundraisers, walk precincts, write to friends, etc.  Councils that have individuals who are good at this will be looked at with respect, or fear, by politicians.

And that’s real power!
(Greg Nelson participated in the birth and development of the LA Neighborhood Council system and served as the General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Nelson now provides news and issues analysis to CityWatch. You can reach Greg Nelson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it )



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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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