Thursday, July 19, 2007

Who Should Be Stakeholders In Neighborhood Councils?

My CITYWATCHLA article today on the Neighborhood Council stakeholder debate:

A Way We Can All Win the Stakeholder Debate

By Brady Westwater

The debate about broadening the definition of what a stakeholder is in neighborhood councils is one of those rare times we might all win – but only after we finally agree upon what it is we are actually debating.

To begin, greater stakeholder involvement is a critical element in the success of neighborhood councils; particularly since the point of neighborhood councils was to broaden the definition of who sits at the table when a neighborhood’s future is debated.

But instead of starting this debate by looking for reasons why a broader definition of stakeholders might NOT work – let’s first consider how involving a broader group of stakeholders might make our individual NC’s stronger and more effective.

Then, after we examine these possible positive benefits, we need to look at the ways to ensure that the existing stakeholders will not become disenfranchised by these changes.

Also, we need to stop the obsession on the importance and composition of board members and to instead look at how we engage our stakeholders in actually getting things done in our neighborhoods. As one example of how this might work, I will use the example of the Downtown Los Angeles NC.

But first, I’d like to see a show of hands of all of you whose NC has too many people willing to get involved and do the hard work?

Hmmmm… not one hand.

And DLANC originally had the same problem.

People active enough to serve on boards tend to serve on lots of boards. They also tend to have active lives. That is why DLANC’s board is increasingly becoming an administrative body that reviews and debates the work done by our committees; committees that have a majority of the seats reserved for non-board members.

This way individual board members can join the committees of most interest to them and concentrate on working there, and not burn themselves out at six hour long board meetings.

In addition, our committees also have ad hoc and sub-committees to deal with specific issues and individual projects – and that gives even more opportunities for anyone in the community interested to participate – no matter what their stakeholdership is.

So at any time, DLANC might have 40 or 50 non-board stakeholders directly involved in a number of real world issues the neighborhood is grappling with; which is considerably more stakeholders directly involved than there are board members.

And these committees have members who may not live or work Downtown, but who have a considerable passion and expertise in the issues being examined. And some of our most effective members have been people who once lived or worked in our area, but who no longer do. Plus the more relaxed rules at our committees, makes it easer for non-committee members to freely involve themselves in the debate. This then encourages them to get involved first as the ad hoc and sub-committee participants, and then as voting members of full committee.

And at least 95% of the time, our board approves any policy the committees have brought to us. But by having the full elected board having to approve every committee’s policy actions (as opposed to implementations of approved polices), this final level of oversight prevents any small group at one committee from adopting polices that would conflict with larger DLANC policies. But in our over five years, we have yet to have a major policy dispute between the board and any committee.

Now this direct, hands on involvement by anyone who wishes to call themselves a stakeholder has worked well for us. It has also opened up our process far more than any broadening of the requirements of running for the board could, which is why stakeholder ship has never been a big issue with us.

OK – now we’ve looked at how opening up the process to non-traditional stakeholders can help NC’s.

So now let’s examine the big, bad, boogie man.

Non-traditional stakeholders running for board seats.

In other words, an army of outsiders storming the gates, pillaging, plundering and taking over NC boards if we dare loosen our definition of who can vote and run in our board elections.

Not gonna happen.

In fact, if we first make more specific which seats each different class of stakeholders can vote for, we will not only ensure that the widest number of stakeholders will have specific representatives to represent them, but we will also greatly reduce the present ability of any single group or organization or class of voters to achieve a majority of any NC board.

But then, our next step, once everything is done to ensure that each of our community’s separate voices will be individually heard, needs be to look at those who might not fit into the more traditionally defined stakeholder seats and see if we might find a way for them to at have a chance to sit at the table.

Now that would not – and should not – have any affect on who can vote for the more traditionally defined seats such as residents or businesses or non-profits. The vast majority of the seats would still be held by those with the closest ties to the community; this proposed change would just create – or modify - one or two or three seats that a broader range stakeholders could then vote and run for to bring more people into the tent.

And, again, this is just an option that should be open for NC’s to consider; the specifics of how they accomplish this should be left up to the individual NC's.

The irony of this all is - I don’t think anyone is proposing anything much different than this. That is why I think our differences on this issue are – semantic.

There are many ways to bring more diverse kinds of stakeholders into the individual NC’s. But there is no reason this can not be done without disenfranchising anyone who is already at the table. Just as less can sometimes be more… more can also sometimes be… more. (Brady Westwater is a long-time downtown community activist. He is also a writer and a regular contributor to CityWatch.)

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