While L.A.’s neighborhood councils cry that City Hall is leaving them in the dust, others complain that election delays, infighting and conflicts with the city have slowed up the neighborhood council movement. The battle for the future of neighborhood councils is now in session.
by Seth Meyer
illustration by Dan May
Who would want to move into a neighborhood where drug dealers-50 of them in a row-sit in front of your building?” says Brady Westwater, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, as he walks past the intersection of Spring and 5th streets. “An art gallery, and that’s about it. Artists think it’s edgy.”
Westwater is a fixture of downtown-on the streets and at City Hall. The fourth generation in his family to live on Spring Street, he’s not only the president of DLANC, but also chairman of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Congress, an umbrella group that has served to unite neighborhood councils from across L.A. since they were created in 1999 by the revamped city charter. Neighborhood councils, it was decided, would be a way for those with no experience in government to participate in decisions affecting their neighborhoods. People like Brady Westwater.
A wiry man with short silver hair, he wears a black T-shirt, black jeans and black cowboy boots as he strides from one gallery to the next, greeting owners, discussing upcoming meetings, and digging for the good candy in their candy dishes.
In 2004, the downtown neighborhood council’s Art Committee conceived of Gallery Row: an area of empty retail spaces and drug dens that would be converted into art galleries. Westwater and the council began looking for spaces and encouraging galleries to move in. What started with five galleries has grown to 27. Nowadays, the Downtown Art Walk is bustling every second Tuesday of each month when galleries open their doors from noon to 9 p.m. With the galleries came small boutique stores and restaurants, and suddenly a forgotten strip of urban blight looked more like a burgeoning art scene.
“People were kind of curious to come downtown, and their understanding was that it was scary as shit,” says Bert Green, director of Bert Green Fine Art located at 5th and Main. “And they weren’t really far off, actually. A lot of people came down here and flipped out. But in a two-year period, it has completely transformed. It’s still rough around the edges, and there’s some crazy stuff that goes on, but mostly people come down here and now they remark how cleaned-up it is.”
“Everybody who’s moving in downtown, people who are doing the neighborhood council, people who live in the lofts, we are forming a very tight and very connected community. We all know each other,” Green says.
Proponents of neighborhood councils would say this is exactly what they were designed to do: bring more people into local government, improve neighborhood conditions, and create a more connected community.
Neighborhood improvements like this, both big and small, have grown out of neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles. A DWP rate increase was trumped. A deal was made with Adelphia cable to provide an affordable basic cable rate for low-income residents. Trees have been planted, parks cleaned up, port-o-potties installed and gym equipment purchased. Streets have been widened, graffiti removed, noise pollution abated and sidewalks repaired.
If you knew nothing else about neighborhood councils, it would seem that these independent little bodies of grassroots democracy are thriving, having accomplished much in the six years since their creation. But conflicts with the city over election procedures and the right to weigh in on important issues before they are decided by the City Council have slowed progress to a standstill in several neighborhood councils. Some neighborhood council leaders contend that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is attempting to limit the powers of the councils, and that he has installed one of his own “Antonio-istas” as interim general manager for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees neighborhood councils. Others warn that neighborhood councils are turning into ineffective extensions of the city’s bureaucracy because of restrictive, newly imposed election procedures and rigid guidelines that govern their meetings.
“We’re just baffled why it’s become so adversarial,” says Westwater. “Why we can’t sit in a room together and work out the election procedures. There’s no communication between us and DONE right now. And if there’s no communication, how do you solve problems?”
The entire system of nearly 90 neighborhood councils stands at a crossroads while the charter-mandated 912 Commission begins a year-long process of reviewing the system and making recommendations to the City Council.
The battle for the future of neighborhood councils is now in session. On one side is a group of neighborhood council advocates who firmly believe in their ability to empower those who traditionally had no say in their government. DONE should be facilitators only, they say, supporting and assisting neighborhood councils, rather than mandating strict guidelines or punishing the councils that make mistakes.
On the other side sits DONE and the city, who say neighborhood councils are advisory, and that they do not have as much power as some might believe. They say civility, both toward each other and toward DONE, remains an issue, and that in order for the neighborhood councils to be effective, outreach within the neighborhoods aimed at recruiting more, diverse stakeholders must be achieved.
Mountain Bikes and Twinkies
It was 1992, before the Rodney King Riots,” says Greg Nelson, former general manager of DONE, as he recalls his neighborhood council epiphany. “I was riding my mountain bike to the top of this mountain in Orange County. It was like a mile high. I got up there, and was sitting under a tree up there enjoying the view and my Twinkie.”
It sounds almost like divine intervention. Nelson wanted to figure out a way to improve many of the social problems Los Angeles was experiencing after the Carter Administration-and the federal dollars associated with it-was replaced by Reagan’s failed trickle-down economics. And it hit him.
“The answer was you have to get more people involved in both doing good things to help their neighborhoods and to hold their elected officials accountable,” Nelson says. “And the only real way to do that is to give people a meaningful role.”
Nelson went to the library and was surprised to find that three Tufts professors had written a book about successful neighborhood councils in other cities, including St. Paul, Minn. and Dayton, Ohio.
“At first I was ticked off because I thought it was my idea. Then I thought, ‘Well, now I don’t have to sell this wild-eyed idea because it’s actually been done in other cities.’ But the problem was, can something like this work in L.A.?”
Nelson sold the idea to his boss, then Councilman Joel Wachs. He liked it so much that he made it the centerpiece of his bid for mayor.
Wachs lost to Richard Riordan, but he didn’t forget about Nelson’s idea. An opportunity to revive the neighborhood council premise arose later, when Riordan began squabbling with City Council, prompting the mayor to propose a rewrite of the city charter in hopes of gaining more power. A Charter Reform Commission was formed, and Wachs and Nelson set out to sell it on the merits of neighborhood councils.
Riordan realized that in order to get the new charter passed, he needed the neighborhood council initiative. “The rest of the charter was boring,” says Nelson. “The mayor’s office knew that they needed to give it some sex appeal.”
Also motivating some to support the neighborhood council model was the fear of secession created by the San Fernando Valley, Hollywood and others, and the hopes that neighborhood councils could hold the city together.
The charter passed in 1999, laying the broad and nebulous groundwork for a system of independent neighborhood councils. Things moved slowly at first, as DONE struggled to invent itself and find the best way of assisting in the formation of the councils.
In 2001 everything changed when Jim Hahn became mayor and hired Nelson as the new DONE general manager. Hahn also allocated $50,000 a year for each certified council to use for neighborhood projects.
Nelson saw neighborhood councils as “public lobbyists” that would hopefully someday be as influential as highly paid special interest lobbyists.
“I envisioned that the neighborhood councils would educate themselves to the point that they were knowledgeable, responsible and creditable within their own neighborhoods, so that the local councilman had no choice but to listen to them,” Nelson says.
The primary concern at this time was building and certifying neighborhood councils, leaving neighborhood leaders to experiment with the best way to run their councils. While this experimentation allowed some neighborhood councils with past experience in homeowner or advisory groups to thrive, it created vicious infighting for others as they attempted to organize many different neighborhood factions around one table. Several neighborhood councils, including Lincoln Heights, had to call the police to break up heated arguments.
“Some folks were showing up, and they accused some of the old board members of stealing from the neighborhood council and using the money for personal benefit,” says David Galaviz, the current president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council. “A fistfight almost broke out…we had our meetings at the senior citizen center in Lincoln Heights. The person who ran it came in and said, ‘Everybody out, you’re not welcome here anymore.”
“I never thought I would find myself quoting Donald Rumsfeld, but democracy is messy,” Nelson says. “And the way that this thing came together so fast guaranteed that it was going to be messy.”
What’s Good In the ‘Hood
It’s difficult to label the neighborhood council system as a success or a failure-even now, more than six years in. Some councils have excelled at creating diverse boards, serving their constituents and offering the city council constructive input on issues important to them. However, others continue to be bogged down by election mishaps and infighting over what their priorities should be.
Neighborhood councils are currently struggling to figure out their role in city government. This development period has been pockmarked with contentious interactions between the councils, DONE and the City Council. Where in the beginning councils were free to run their own elections, now strict requirements mandated by the January 2005 citywide election procedures, and the rigid enforcement of these rules by DONE, has soured many on the efficacy of the system. This has left some stakeholders wondering just what DONE’s role is: a facilitator that assists through difficult times, or an enforcer who punishes when councils make mistakes?
According to the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Congress, 39 elections-nearly half of all the neighborhood councils-have been delayed or cancelled. While there have never been this many election problems before at one time, this is not the first time neighborhood councils have experienced such issues.
Anyone who is a stakeholder in the neighborhood has the right to vote in an election; this is any person who lives, works, owns property or runs a business in the neighborhood. But the ambiguity of the term in the early years led to some interesting problems. In one instance, a candidate was rumored to bring an entire high-school class to cast ballots. And in Venice, a woman famously marked a ballot on behalf of her dog.
“Two years ago we decided our next project was to make the election process easier,” says Nelson. “We came up with some standardized citywide election procedures that gave neighborhood councils the widest variety of ways to pick their leaders, but said whatever method you take, here are the things you must do to ensure that it’s fair and open.”
The City Council adopted election procedures in January 2005, but because of glitches and delays, they didn’t take effect until the start of this year, Nelson says. “What we were trying to do in the department was make sure the neighborhood councils knew what they needed to do without being heavy-handed about it.”
Nelson retired earlier this year, and Lisa Sarno, a former city council staffer to Mayor Villaraigosa, became the interim general manager in April.
“When Lisa Sarno became the general manager, she had a different approach, says Nelson. “I think her words were, ‘We have to bite the bullet. We’re just going to make them comply to the letter of the law, and if they don’t they’ll just have to delay their elections and put them off to another day.’”
While DONE has shouldered much of the criticism for the election delays, Sarno says the neighborhood councils knew that the election guidelines were going to be put into place.
“The election procedures were not just recently presented to the neighborhood councils,” she says. “This is actually something that was crafted by a committee of neighborhood council representatives and has been out there for over a year and a half. The department informed and relayed to neighborhood councils over the course of several months that the citywide procedures would become effective early this year.”
Sarno says there’s no specific entity that was at fault for the delays. “When you enact something that’s new, it’s never a good time,” she says. “There’s always going to be challenges in making a transition to a new policy.”
Jason Lyon, vice-chair for the 912 commission and Silver Lake Neighborhood Council member, says that while DONE has tried to pin the election debacle on the neighborhood councils, it’s DONE’s job to correct those problems and get the councils organized. “If DONE sees that they’re not together with paperwork, that project coordinator ought to be jumping in and saying, ‘We’ve got to get this together.’ And that’s not happening.”
City Council President Eric Garcetti says that neighborhood councils have a right to be upset, but that DONE raises very important issues about fair elections. “You can’t let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the ‘good,’” he says. “And I hope that we can resolve that so we don’t chase people away from that entry point of participation, which is those elections.”
Earlier this year, Councilmen Dennis Zine and Garcetti proposed a moratorium on all neighborhood council elections until DONE and the councils could resolve the problem.
Lyon says the moratorium is a good idea. “At the time Zine called for the moratorium, DONE did not have the staffing in place to implement their part of the rules. There were no independent election administrators, I think there are now three, which still isn’t enough for 87 neighborhood councils.”
Sarno says that five independent election administrators to assist the councils in running their elections now exist, and four more are in the pipeline. According to her, the moratorium is not needed.
“Many of our neighborhood councils have already adhered to our citywide election procedures,” she says. The best thing we can do is work with them to see what we have to change, and get through this election cycle so we can move on to the next year, Sarno says.
“We’ve already looked into next year, and we’re not going to experience the situation again.”
“I never dreamed people would be so frustrated that the department was oppressive, that they were being forced to follow the rules,” says Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has long been a proponent of neighborhood councils. “I never envisioned neighborhood councils like that. I really saw them as being sort of a liberated organization that behaved differently than other organizations in the city of Los Angeles, and I feel like that hasn’t happened.”
N.C v. C.C
As neighborhood councils begin to learn how best to wield their power, one area of contention revolves around a charter mandate that requires the councils’ input before important decisions are made by the City Council. This doesn’t always happen, leaving some neighborhood councils to believe that they are purposefully being left out of the process. A controversial ethics reform/term limit extension proposal rushed through the council last week is the latest example.
According to several neighborhood council advocates, the city council lumped together the two issues and pushed them through the council in an attempt to bypass the neighborhood councils and Ethics Commission and to disguise the true nature of the proposal. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo told the Daily News, “The people of Los Angeles have been cheated.”
Nelson says Lyon contacted Garcetti to write the opposition argument for the proposal, and was initially told he was too late before the councilman reversed his position and appointed Lyon and Jeff Jacobberger, a stakeholder in the Mid-City West Neighborhood Council, to write the argument, which was submitted to the council on Monday.
Nelson considers this a victory for neighborhood councils, not because all neighborhood councils oppose the measure, but because it demonstrates what can happen when neighborhood councils work. “This is a big turning point for neighborhood councils, and I think it will be an action that will unify them because hopefully they now have found a common foe, which is the proposal and the way it got on the ballot,” Nelson told the Daily News.
But Garcetti says media interpretations of the situation are askew, and does not see how this can be interpreted as a victory for neighborhood councils. “The Daily News wrote as if [Lyon] had been told, ‘No, you can’t do it,’ and then turning it into a symbolic victory for the neighborhood councils,” Garcetti says. “I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, this is a couple individuals who happen to be with neighborhood councils; there’s a ton of people in neighborhood councils that are for this, who have written us and want to be a part of the argument on the other side.”
One reason that neighborhood council notification has been a problem is because of the vastly different speeds at which the two groups move. “I think the neighborhood councils are experiencing just how huge the volume and how rapid the velocity of city government is and has to be,” Garcetti says. “If somebody ever wants to find that there’s not enough process, they can do it consistently on anything. We vote on probably 400 to 500 different items between committees and full council every week.”
Dr. Robert Gelfand of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council says because councils meet usually once a month, they cannot weigh in on issues in a timely matter; items that require a vote must be referred to the appropriate committee before it is put on the agenda, meaning the quickest turnaround time for a resolution is 30 days.
“On Monday morning, we read about something that’s going to be put on the Thursday agenda,” Gelfand said. “Well, we’re not going to have a meeting that week, and even if we were, we couldn’t put it on the agenda because of the Brown Act and its requirement of 72 hours notice. Neighborhood councils have been wrestling with this for five years.”
Many in neighborhood councils see DONE as the main culprit for the problems in neighborhood councils. They say that election templates are constantly shifting, that election officials are sparse at best, and that low employee morale leads to rapid turnover within the department.
“The biggest problem is that they (DONE) don’t have enough people working in the field with us,” says Westwater.
Independent election officers are supposed to help plan elections and make sure election procedures are in accordance with the city and the council’s own bylaws.
“We’ve had one election administrator to handle everything until recently, so the guy’s having a nervous breakdown. So you miss one date, if he’s not available for 90 days, you have to add another 90 days because there’s only one person available.”
Lyon says he’s concerned with the morale level within DONE. “We’re literally on our fourth project coordinator in four months,” he says. “One was reassigned, two quit because they were miserable, and we have a new one who seems committed and great.”
“Council members have long said that (DONE field deputy) is the hardest job in politics here,” says Garcetti. “You’re out late, you’re running around different places, it’s a seven-days-a-week thing.”
Sarno asserts morale has improved since she got there. “We actually have had folks…that have been offered positions (outside the department) who have declined because they want to stay within the department because they see the new direction that it’s going in,” she says.
The main criticisms of neighborhood councils revolve around a few key issues: that more outreach must be done to increase diversity on the councils and make sure that all constituents are represented, and that neighborhood councils need to learn how to better work with each other and the city at large.
“I believe that our neighborhood councils need to be inclusive of renters, of seniors and of the youth,” says Sarno. “I think everyone needs to do a better job of incorporating those voices into our neighborhood councils.”
“This is a city on the move that really embraces everybody, and we’ve got to make sure neighborhood councils reflect that,” says Garcetti. He also says that while a lot of people have made huge sacrifices, participation rates still were not what “any vibrant democracy should have.”
“Apathy and lack of participation and exclusion of huge chunks of the population are a part of the political system in America,” says Lyon. “So the idea that we would have somehow figured out how to fix that in seven years is unrealistic. I do think the neighborhood councils in theory are perfect for addressing those problems.”
Newly discouraging for the councils is a tabled proposal written by Lyon that would have allowed neighborhood councils to introduce policy motions in City Council. Both the Education and Neighborhood Committee and the Rules and Elections Committee had approved it, but on Aug. 17 City Council refused to grant neighborhood leaders that policy power.
Dun Dun DONE…
What does the future hold for neighborhood councils? The 912 Commission is just underway, and no one, not even the commissioners, really know what’s going to happen. Also in progress is the search for a new, permanent general manager of DONE. The Education and Neighborhoods Committee has held several forums for the public to discuss what they would like in a new general manager, and the consensus seems to be someone who will fight for the neighborhood councils.
“For me the number one quality is that this person isn’t a bureaucrat,” says Hahn. “A general manager who has the guts to fight City Hall.”
Hahn also suggested at the Educations and Neighborhoods meeting last Monday that a sort of “junior Brown Act” might alleviate some of the constrictive guidelines that prohibit the councils from being more successful. “I think it sometimes prevents them from being relevant on certain issues,” she said. “We move pretty fast at the City Council.”
There are signs that neighborhood councils are improving. Remember Lincoln Heights, the neighborhood council that almost turned into a brawl? Since Galaviz became president, the council has done a complete 180-degree turn, electing a new board and getting together a quorum for the first time in a year and a half. They’ve even allocated funds for a Lincoln Heights holiday parade and the fireworks display for this year’s Fourth of July celebration.
In the meantime, disenchanted neighborhood council-ers and frustrated DONE-ites might want to take a page out of Nelson’s book: Go for a mountain bike ride, and treat yourself to a Twinkie. Who knows, maybe the solution to all the problems rests in neighborhood councils’ original, cream-filled catalyst. LAA