By Krista Schwimmer
Once a month, the Venice Neighborhood Council (VNC) holds a public board meeting at Westminster Elementary School. According to their own website, one of their purposes is “to promote Stakeholder participation and advocacy in Los Angeles City government decision-making processes.” Their website also goes on to say that a member has the right “to comment on an action, policy, or position.” At the most recent meeting of the VNC, this right to comment was selectively directed by President Mike Newhouse.
After Captain Johnson gave his monthly crime report, Community Officer Tommy Walker brought up a recent police incident that outraged the Oakwood Community. Two weeks earlier, a repass at Oakwood Recreational Community center drew 10 or 12 police officers. A repass, explained Tommy, is “when an individual in the community dies, they have food and they come to the park and hang out.” Police thought 400 gang members would be attending this particular repass. “There were 10, 12 police officers there on a continual basis,” Walker said. “There were individuals escorted out of the park for smoking cigarettes.” Tommy then asked the Captain to address the community there tonight.
In his statement to the community, Captain Johnson apologized several times. “In this instance, we didn’t get it right. We were overbearing. We were overly deployed, in my opinion. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there, so I didn’t get to see it first hand. But as soon as I got a call from Pastor Allen, I put things in motion to fix it.” Captain Johnson ended his comments by stating, “I don’t suspect this will happen again, certainly not while I’m in charge,” as well as offering to stay and to speak with anyone privately outside about the incident.
President Mike Newhouse then told the public that even though comments were not normally allowed during announcements, he would permit one minute of comment per person. At the same time, he kept directing community members to meet privately with Captain Johnson, saying, “I would think it might be more productive to take Captain Johnson up on his offer.” If they met with Captain Johnson privately, how would the rest of the community hear their stories?
Karen, an older, African-American Oakwood resident, spoke first. She said she was insulted by how the people at the repass were characterized as gang members. She also stated that “this didn’t just happen on that particular day” but on other days, during birthdays, showers – whenever African- Americans gathered at Oakwood. When the timer buzzed, Karen was still speaking when Newhouse jumped in and tried to cut her off. What followed was a verbal tug of war between the two, with Newhouse insisting Karen stop, despite others in the community saying they would cede their time to her.“It’s because you don’t want to hear the truth,” Karen stated. “It’s about the truth. It’s about the disgrace that is placed upon our people. And you’re going to give me a minute?”
Later that same night, when Gail Rogers, a Caucasian woman, was speaking against the Free Shuttle motion, her one minute time ran out. Rather than stop her, Newhouse immediately gave her the go ahead for a second minute, which she went on to fully use.
Whatever the motive for Newhouse’s over-zealous control of Karen’s single minute, how he handled her set a precedent for the African-Americans who spoke after her. Considering what they were there to speak up against – the heavy-handedness of LAPD in the Oakwood Community – this tactic was equivalent to a choke hold.
In the beginning of his term as President, Newhouse even resorted to restricting public comments to 30 seconds. Hearing complaints from community members, Mark Kleiman, a member of the Land Use and Planning Committee, wrote Newhouse a letter in which he urged “the Board to adopt a rule allowing, at minimum, 60 seconds for each person commenting on any matter on the VNC’s agenda.”
During the September VNC Board meeting, Kleiman’s motion appeared on the agenda under “New Business” as “Motion to Establish a Minimum Comment Period of Sixty Seconds for Each Individual Commenter.” Part of this motion included the stipulation that “limits on the amount of time each commenter is allowed shall be uniform for each Board meeting.” The motion, itself, was never even made by the Board, leaving the allocation of time once more in the hands of President Newhouse.
Neighborhood Councils exist to encourage more participation in the creation and sustaining of communities. How is this possible, however, when stakeholders who diligently attend these long meetings have no voice there? Whether it is 30 seconds or one minute, this is not always enough time to make meaningful comments. Not every person is even comfortable with public speaking. As a result, it can take a few seconds to simply organize one’s thoughts.
Besides, shouldn’t the VNC listen more to the community than themselves? Last year, City Attorney Mike Feuer spoke at the April VNC Board meeting. During his address, he emphasized listening to the community, saying “speaking skills are tremendously overvalued in public service and the law. Listening skills are typically WAY undervalued.” Newhouse exacerbates the matter with his continual “hurrying” of people along – despite the frequency with which he interjects himself throughout the night.
As stakeholders, we elect the President, as well as keep him or her there. Even VNC calls us “the ultimate authority and the controlling force of the Venice Neighborhood Council.” If the community continues to be stifled by the current President, stakeholders can voice their concern another way: through a recall election. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”