By Jim Smith
Could this be the beginning of the end of “grassroots” democracy.
First, the city threatened to cut off the money it doles out to its 95 certified neighborhood councils. During the last two years annual funding has been cut from $50,000 to $40,000. Still, the city is shelling out nearly $4 million annually.
Next, the L.A. City Council neglected to appropriate any funds to hold elections for the neighborhood council boards. It was only a couple of years ago that the city mandated that elections must be overseen by the City Clerk’s office.
One possibility is that the neighborhood councils would be required to pay for their city-administered election to the tune of $13,000. In Venice, that would be in addition to the $5,000 that the VNC paid for election outreach last year. At this rate, board members may be out on Ocean Front Walk asking for spare change for their neighborhood council.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which under Greg Nelson stuck its nose into the neighborhood councils affairs, and even blocked the Venice council from functioning for a year (see http://www.freevenice.org/Secrets/andemails.html), has seen its staff cut by 50 percent in the past year.
A recent L.A. Congress of Neighborhoods, which was attended by approximately two-thirds of the councils, unanimously passed a motion against canceling the elections. Without elections, the legitimacy of the various neighborhood councils around the city would likely be called into question. In Venice, the council’s bylaws provide for two-year terms (expiring in April 2012) but also include an open-ended clause: “a board member’s term shall be for the duration of two years or until a successor is elected or appointed” (Article VI, Sect. A). Even with this provision, it’s unlikely that most stakeholders would interpret it to mean a board member could hang on two years after his/her term expired.
An election report by the City Clerk to the City Council in 2010 estimated that the cost of its office running elections for all neighborhood councils would be $1,343,170. If the election included a vote-by-mail option and outreach for the election, an addition cost of $1,650,656 would be incurred. Only 21,623 stakeholders voted in 89 neighborhood council elections in 2010.
With city finances unable to meet the usual city expenditures such as libraries, police, fire, street repair, tree trimming, etc., some city officials may question the value of maintaining the “luxury” of neighborhood councils, especially when some of its officers use their positions to oppose their city councilmember’s pet projects. In addition, there is no guarantee that the city’s financial position will have improved by 2014 to the extent that it could pay for 95 elections.
A motion to cancel the 2012 neighborhood council elections will come to the city council this month. When asked recently about the cancelation of the elections, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa commented that it wasn’t a good idea, but he refused to commit to vetoing the motion if passed by the city council.
While, the neighborhood council system was reeling from these cutbacks, L.A. Councilmember Paul Krekorian (CD-2), who is chair of the city’s Education and Neighborhoods Committee, which oversees neighborhood councils, has introduced four motions to make changes in the way neighborhood councils function. None of his ideas are supported by neighborhood councils on the west side, a VNC board member told the Beachhead.
The motions include changes to funding, training, grievance handling and regional governance.
Funding changes would require a neighborhood council to apply for a grant from the city for a community project (which would mean the end of much of the automatic city funding). A grievance system would be established with a panel of neighborhood council officers from other areas to rule on a grievance. Currently, grievances are filed against the Board, which then rules on its validity.
The amount of mandatory training for Board members would be increased. Regional governance would make neighborhood councils more dependent on each other. In Venice’s case, it would be tied into councils on the westside.
An obvious solution to the costly election process would be to conduct neighborhood council elections at the same time as other city elections, which are held in odd-numbered years. But this would blur the distinction that the city would like to preserve between real elected officials (Mayor, City Council, City Attorney, Controller) and “quasi” officials of the neighborhood councils.
Ten years into the experiment, neighborhood councils have not advanced their role in city government. They are still advisory-only. Nothing can happen in the community by vote of a neighborhood council alone, despite the airs that some NC officials put on.
The whole structure of the neighborhood councils is so L.A. and so un-Venetian. There is a strict separation between the elected board and the peons, also called stakeholders. The city will not allow a town hall structure, where everyone is equal, but insists on a small group that can be anointed as leaders by, at best, a few hundred voters (and sometimes, only a handful) of voters out of tens of thousands in the community.
When the old Grass Roots Venice Neighborhood Council tried to be truly grassroots, it was slapped down by the city. Beginning in 1973, the Venice Town Council proved that a town hall structure could work well. Everyone had their say, a consensus was usually reached and things got done. They only thing missing was the paternalism of the city over the process.
The September 20 Venice Neighborhood Council meeting was a case in point. As usual, stakeholders where allowed only one minute to state their views no matter the complexity of the issue. Meanwhile, officers rambled on, often repeating points just raised by their colleagues.
In a new twist in avoiding the views of the stakeholders, the first two hours of the agenda were molded into “announcements only.” Under this description, no stakeholder input, questions or sour grapes were allowed. Important topics such as Google moving 450 engineers into Venice, the crime report, the report on the so-called “roadmap to housing,” the pending removal of 38 trees, and reports by representatives of federal, state and city officials all passed by with no comments allowed by stakeholders. It was so boring that even the cops left. Had anyone demanded their right to be heard, there would have been no police present to throw them out of the meeting.
The Neighborhood Council system was conceived in the late 1990s with the support of Councilmember Joel Wachs and Republican Mayor Richard Riordan. The motivation for setting up the local councils was, in part, to forestall secession movements in the city. Others saw the predominately homeowner-represented councils as a counterweight to the power of city workers unions. Just last month, neighborhood council leaders had no problem at the Congress of Neighborhoods with the fiercely anti-union Wal Mart being the chief corporate sponsor.
A Cal State Fullerton study by Raphael Sonenshein, described a neighborhood council system, in 2007, that was skewed against renters, Latinos, and those with household incomes under $100,000 a year (See Beachhead, Aug. 2007: http://bit.ly/qc8EJ4). Not much has changed in the past four years.
Here in Venice, the Board has either lost or doesn’t want to use the translating equipment used at the old GRVNC meetings. And it has ignored requests by Board member Ivonne Guzman and stakeholders that it provide translations for the growing Latino population in Venice. The Board, which may attempt to cling to power until 2014 without an election mandate, is 86 percent white in a community which prides itself on its diversity.
The hopes that the neighborhood councils would serve as a counterweight to the unions has not saved city officials themselves from being the target of frustrated and irate neighborhood activists. City officials who have never wanted to share their power with anyone, whether pro-union or anti-union, are now confronting new rivals created by the councils. They may be coming to the conclusion that the neighborhood councils are too much trouble and cost too much money.
Surely, Venice and the rest of Los Angeles deserves something better.