Bylaws Revisited


By John Kim

As you may have heard, the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners is re-examining the issue of NC bylaws and how to rationalize them at a system-wide level during this unique moment in the NC system’s history.  The financial trouble that the City currently faces, and will continue to face, is worse than we’ve seen in decades.  The NC system has not gone unscathed with the NC funding program cut down by 10%, the City Clerk ‘s capacity to conduct the city-wide elections cut to the bone (with no funds for outreach), and the Department’s operating budget cut by almost 25% in the past two years.

For the NC system, these cuts are more than just “trimming the fat”.  Rather, they are putting additional strain on a system that was already struggling to sustain a burgeoning network of 89 neighborhood councils.  These cuts call into question the City’s ability to provide basic services to NC’s and have the potential to hamper the long-term efficacy of the system. 

Yet, it is in these times of financial woe and diminishing services that the City most needs their Neighborhood Councils to be as efficient and engaged as possible.  Only through a strong NC system, can we ensure that the community’s voice is at the table when the hard decisions are being made and, that when we talk about “shared sacrifice” we are also talking about “shared responsibility” and “shared buy-in”.

But a full reversal of the City’s financial fortunes does not seem eminent.  Therefore it is all of our responsibility (the Commission, the Department, and NC leaders) to make what we have as efficient and responsive as possible. 

Of course, truly effective reform doesn’t mean fiddling around the edges.  It is means that we need to do the hard work and find the most efficient levers of reform. This is a key reason why we are exploring bylaws at this moment. 

Of course, this isn’t the first time the system-wide rationalization of bylaws has been raised as a key reform recommendation.  The NCRC had made the rationalizing of bylaws a key part of its final recommendations because they understood that tackling this problem would set a more sound foundation for better system-wide support in the future.

At the same time and on a dishearteningly regular basis, the Commission hears painful stories of NC stakeholders filled with good intentions but frustrated with irrational gaps and ambiguities in their bylaws.  For them, it’s as though they are being asked to play a game where the rules are unclear and easily changed. 

We often see cases where bad bylaws actually lead to interpersonal conflicts rather than being a tool to resolve them.  On the other side, we hear frustrations expressed by DONE, City Attorney, or other city staff who are struggling to develop system-wide solutions to system-wide problems (most key of which is a robust grievance process) but are hampered by inconsistent and problematic bylaws.

But we can’t tackle such a complex and delicate matter in the normal disjointed and “one-size fits all” fashion.  The Commission has heard, loud and clear, that there are many in the system that are perfectly happy with their bylaws - bylaws which they painstakingly and strategically created in response to the unique needs of their specific Neighborhood Councils. 

Having conducted a few Town Halls on the subject over the past several months, several key concepts have bubbled up which the Commission generally agrees with:

1.    We need to take a “learning & building” approach versus a “standardizing or template-izing” approach.  In other words, we need to learn directly from NC’s about what does or doesn’t work with their bylaws and to build upon that learning.

2.    Keep clear of NC self-governance components of bylaws.  NC’s should retain control over the substantive pieces of their bylaws.  Therefore we should focus on critical components that every set of bylaws should include (given best practices and the learning from above) and ensuring that as a whole – bylaws are strong system-wide foundation for the future.

3.    The Commission should not be tackling this issue alone. 

Therefore we want chart new territory in dealing with this critical issue.  We are proposing something not seen before in the NC system: a truly substantive partnership between the Commission, Department, City Attorney’s Office and NC leaders. 

To that end, we are strongly encouraging the formation of a Taskforce primarily comprised of NC leaders and volunteers but conducted in direct partnership with DONE.  While Commission members can be available to provide our perspective when helpful, we intend to stay relatively hands-off and to have NC leaders and DONE staff jointly develop strategies and recommendations of how to conduct this work around bylaws. 

We hope this Taskforce will be a model for how the Department and NC leaders can partner on key issues – one where each respects the other as experts, resources, and equal partners, one where the substantive issues are worked out collaboratively and transparently.

Though we were eager to settle on something before the citywide elections begin in April of next year, we don’t want to rush such an important topic.  Therefore we will leave it up to the Taskforce to decide on its own timeline. 

Once its final recommendations are confirmed, the Commission will create ample opportunity for the Taskforce to present and discuss its final recommendations with the Commission in a public forum.  The Commission will then deliberate upon these recommendations and vote upon a final system-wide policy on bylaws to be implemented soon after.

Thus establishing a system-wide rationale for bylaws can be one of the single most powerful things we can do to improve the overall quality of the NC system. 

Last year, NC leaders showed City Hall their newfound political might by successfully pushing back again more severe budget cut proposal.  This year, NC leaders have to opportunity to show City Hall our capacity to make the system even more efficient and therefore more worthy stewards of the on-going investment.

Attached below is an “Open Letter to the NC system” encouraging the formation of the Taskforce and presents some key details discussed so far.

(John Kim serves on the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners.)

An Open Letter to the NC System – BYLAWS REVISITED
The Commission is interested in obtaining input and assistance from a Bylaws Taskforce to be comprised of NC leaders, volunteers, Department leadership, and the City Attorney’s Office.  Primarily, the Commission is interested in obtaining feedback regarding key items related to rationalizing bylaws across the system.  Mainly, the Commission is requesting feedback on three questions:
1.    What are the essential questions that all bylaws should respond to?  *important to note that this does not include how those questions should be answered
2.    What are 3-5 IDEAL/EXAMPLE bylaws that currently exist and work well and what are some commonalities amongst them?
3.    What is the best process to implement the “updating” of bylaws over the following year?
4.    How can this work on bylaws improve NC’s self-governance capacity and allow the Department and Commission to focus on other system-building priorities?

The Commission would like to schedule a discussion with the bylaw Taskforce and asks that you have your final recommendations prepared by April or May of 2010 – though we’ll remain flexible given the progress of the Taskforce.  Once the Taskforce is prepared to present its final recommendations, the Commission will create ample opportunity for the Taskforce to publicly present their recommendations to the Commission for consideration.  We would also ask the Taskforce to work in close partnership with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment ("Department") since they may have additional resources and insight that may be useful in reaching your conclusions. 

In addition, the Commission is concerned that suggestions from the Taskforce should consider and evaluate a wide-range of opinions.  Accordingly, the Commission would request that the Taskforce also explain to the Commission any efforts that were undertaken by the Taskforce to include a diversity of membership on its Taskforce, including members that are supportive and opposed to standardized bylaw provisions and from diverse geographic areas.  Please also explain the specific efforts undertaken by the Taskforce to incorporate as many varied viewpoints as possible in reaching its recommendations."

The Task Force kick off meeting is planned for Saturday, January 23, 2010 from 10:00 A.M. to Noon, at the Barrio Action Youth and Family Center, 4927 Huntington Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90032 (location to be confirmed). Coffee and snacks will be available.

Look for the Department’s E-Blasts for more information in the near future.



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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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