Call to Order 

Inside the messy democracy of a neighborhood meeting

Thursday, Aug 26 2004

Frosted Again

“What are you going to do about the homeless?” a young man demands from the back of the elementary-school auditorium. “Every day we see more people on our streets, and it’s always our neighborhood that carries the burden.”

“That’s right!” snaps a woman in the front row. “Why is it always us?” Before the guest speaker can respond, B.J. Mynatt steps in. She’s not about to let this meeting of the Harbor Gateway North Neighborhood Council become a free-for-all.

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“Wait a minute!” Mynatt scolds into the microphone. “One at a time.”

Mynatt flashes a friendly but no-nonsense look toward the guest speaker, who happens to be Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, to make it clear Hahn knows he must be leaving soon. He was not, after all, on the agenda.

Hahn talks to the council about tough choices in tough times. “But,” he says to sustained applause, “there’s no way I’m going to cut our neighborhood councils and the $50,000 we’ve made sure they get each year.”

About 70 people fill the wooden seats. At the front, on either side of Mynatt, sit 14 board members. Around them, standing in the aisles, are city officials from Hahn’s office, from the Transportation Department, from the LAPD.

“There was a question about the homeless,” Hahn says, and he introduces, right there, in the flesh, Armen Ross, his top deputy for homeless issues. Hands shoot up around the auditorium. But there is a schedule to keep, so Ross simply says hello and gives out — in public, for everyone to hear — his telephone number. Call me up, he tells the neighbors. The same thing happens with a man from the housing authority, and an engineer from transportation. Problems with commercial vehicles parking overnight on residential streets? “Let me give you my telephone number,” says a police lieutenant. “We’ll take care of it.”

People look dazed, but busily write down the phone numbers. “They’re all right here!” an elderly man exclaims to no one in particular. “Everyone we need is here. This neighborhood council business is mighty fine!”

Four years earlier, many of these same neighbors waited for hours, on a street corner, in the dark, to be picked up by city buses that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) promised would take them to an orientation session for forming a council. The buses never came, and Mynatt and others saw the episode as just the latest example of their mistreatment by a city that has long neglected the narrow shoestring strip of land running through South Los Angeles that connects San Pedro to the rest of the city.

But this night, at least, City Hall is back in the good graces of Harbor Gateway. When the mayor leaves, dozens of neighbors stick around to ask questions of the remaining city officials, who — happily, it appears — answer their questions and promise to look into problems.

Over on the side, a woman sits behind a table stacked with cookies, cake and coffee. “Don’t you dare leave here,” she says to the assembled neighbors, “without eating some of your money.”

Battling Extinction

“Please,” Victoria Davidson-Castillo tells the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC). “Give us one more chance. If it doesn’t work this time, we’ll say, okay, we’ll come in and say it’s time to let the baby go.”

Davidson-Castillo is standing at the microphone at a middle-school auditorium in Hollywood, pleading with a panel of ominously silent commissioners not to pull the plug on the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council. But it doesn’t look good. A few minutes ago, at a meeting that is already stretching toward 11 p.m., Commissioner Tony Lucente made it very clear he had lost patience with the organizers of another basket-case council, Greater Cypress Park. He and his colleagues do not appear to be in a generous mood. “There’s nothing that says everybody gets to have a neighborhood council,” one city staffer reminds the board.

And hasn’t Van Nuys already pulled the plug on itself? Over the course of two years the community moved from one council fiasco to another, with meetings that consisted primarily of angry invective hurled back and forth. “Don’t come back until you learn to speak English,” one ex-member insists she was told. “They said I was a fanatic for wanting to organize a diversity slate,” another ex-member says, “and then when we won, they all quit.”

They did all quit. One by one, members of the board of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council resigned in anger, disgust or despair, until only Davidson-Castillo was left. She, alone, did not constitute a quorum under the bylaws, so she couldn’t get the votes she needed to even hold another election.

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