Neighborhood Councils Flex Their Muscles

A recent fight over a proposed $3 billion bond issue for street repairs illustrated the growing influence of neighborhood councils in Los Angeles city government, as they exerted enough influence to keep the measure off the ballot for now.

The success in that case represents an evolution for the councils, which at their inception a dozen years ago were seen as potentially powerless because they held no real voting authority in city matters. But through wider participation and exerting a louder voice, observers say, they are now fulfilling the influential role envisioned for them when voters revised the City Charter in 1999.

"This is what it was meant to be," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, and who served as the top aide to the appointed Charter Reform Commission.


"They were meant to be a strong community voice and weigh in on major issues. It might be annoying (to the City Council) but the whole idea was to create a different form of review and allow the community to weigh in."

The street bond proposal from Councilmen Mitch Englander and Joe Buscaino provided the perfect vehicle for neighborhood councils to weigh in.

Englander and Buscaino proposed on a Friday afternoon to have the council vote the following week to place the bond on the May 21 ballot, without any formal staff reports and only sketchy details on the cost for the public.

Neighborhood council groups, starting with the Los Angeles Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, and supported by the Valley Alliance and others, called for a 60-day delay to allow time for review of the proposal. City Council offices began receiving telephone calls of protest from homeowners. The public outcry forced the council to put off the bond until a future election.

"In truth, that's the way it should work," Sonenshein said. "It's not giving the neighborhood council a veto power, but it is including them in the process."

Englander acknowledged as much.

"Everyone I talk with says there is a need to fix the streets, but they were unhappy with the process," Englander said.

The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) is planning a review of the role of the neighborhood councils in the future. A daylong discussion is scheduled for Jan. 26 to look back at the original intent of neighborhood councils as part as an overall plan for their future.

Greg Nelson, the first general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, said he foresees a constant struggle between neighborhood councils and the city over early access to information and being heard.

"The City Charter requires an early notification system, but the problem is that regulations were adopted that were weak in this regard, so the City Council regularly ignores this part of the City Charter," Nelson said.

BONC weighed in on the issue earlier this month, voting to send letters to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Council members reminding them of the City Charter provisions and asking that the neighborhood council role be included in future decisions.

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, (DONE)which oversees the councils, recently had a new general manager, Grayce Liu, confirmed.

Liu said she sees the neighborhood councils at a crossroads.

"They have increased their ability to access City Hall and are demanding to be part of the process," Liu said. "I think we also need to deal with (city) departments to get the more aware of the neighborhood councils.

"Some general managers will call me and say they want the neighborhood councils to weigh in on an issue in a week. With 95, it's just not possible to move that quickly. We tell them they have to do more outreach to make the neighborhood councils part of the process."

Villaraigosa regularly turned to the neighborhood councils for help when he was first elected, winning their support to increase the trash fee with the promise the money would be used to expand the Los Angeles Police Department.

He also made strong appeals to win their support for his budget initiatives and even when he needed to reduce their annual budget from $50,000 to $45,000 because of the city's financial problems. He still sends out an annual survey to the neighborhood councils on budget priorities.

BONC Commissioner Doug Epperhart said the problem is getting the City Council to listen.

"Some are very good in dealing with their neighborhood councils," Epperhart said. "Some have this overriding sense that they are the elected representative and if they feel it's important they know best how to handle it.

"What neighborhood councils have to realize is the game here is politics. It means more to fill up a room with 100 people wearing the same colored T-shirts to get something accomplished."

BONC Vice President Len Shaffer said the neighborhood councils have begun to mature in learning how to get the city to respond to local needs.  But he also sees the establishment of more coalitions of neighborhood councils as being an effective voice on major issues.

"As the coalitions continue to form around the city, they hopefully will begin to act together on issues," Shaffer said. "That's a whole lot of people with the power to serve as an education force to tell people what's going on."

And, with the upcoming race for mayor, the neighborhood councils hope to pressure the candidates to acknowledge their place in city government, with several joining to host candidate forums and other events.


Reprinted with permission from Daily News



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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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