By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photos by Ted Soqui
The question before the house is whether to leave the tables as they are or come up with some new kind of arrangement.
Not the sort of issue you’d expect would rivet a crowd of neighborhood leaders at a dingy community center on a hot summer evening, but here they are. Should we line up the tables end to end? Cluster them in groups according to geographic area? Where should we seat the newly elected members? And who will swear them in? Simple-enough questions.
But this is Lincoln Heights, where nothing is simple.
Oh, no. Here we go. Again.
Garcia stiffens visibly and tries to move on with the meeting, but it’s too late. A man stands and shouts at Garcia. “There’s been a petition to recall you on the agenda since last November over your dereliction of duty,” he yells, as he demands to know the whereabouts of money from some rental arrangement. A couple of people who have been to plenty of these meetings and know trouble when they see it take off to look for the uniformed park ranger who was here earlier but now seems to have slipped away. Meanwhile, a man at the head table with Garcia rises and shouts back, and it becomes a free-for-all, with allegations about missing cash and charges of election fraud, fingers jabbed in the air, plastic water bottles held aloft. Then one bottle goes flying. And a woman with a bearing that suggests she is not to be trifled with strides into the middle of the fray.
“Okay,” the woman declares. “I run this center, and I ask you to leave. Right now.”
The room falls silent, and the grown men and women shuffle out, heads lowered, still muttering to each other. “You guys started it this time,” one hisses.
And so ends another meeting of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council, which has been unable to muster a quorum or deal with a single item on its agenda for nearly a year but continues to meet twice a month, every other Thursday at 6 p.m.
This official body of the city of Los Angeles, representing a down-at-the-heels but historic and mostly Latino community in the northeastern corner of the city, entitled to $50,000 a year in taxpayer funds, displaying the city seal on letters and business cards, bound by meticulous standards for publishing agendas and posting meeting notices, resembles nothing so much as a junior high school student council where the substitute teacher forgot to show up.
Signs of success displayed to the outside world, like the street banners that brighten up North Broadway with the name of the council prominently displayed, are misleading. That’s another Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council, an ersatz group of the same name that Garcia and other founding council members started and incorporated, one that could get things done, one that didn’t require election committees, city certification, bylaw sign-off, community outreach, Brown Act compliance, personal financial disclosure, or any of the other burdens of officialdom that are giving the city’s nearly 90 official councils headaches and identity crises.
This Lincoln Heights mess began ostensibly with a dispute over whether to support a memorial wall dedicated to people who died of AIDS. But neighbors now spar over personality, culture, money, and, primarily, the right to define the community and speak for it.
Councils in dozens of neighborhoods around Los Angeles are struggling as well. In communities where once there was no open discord — because, to be sure, there were few opportunities to get involved and no choices to be made — neighbors are fighting.
In Van Nuys — the poster child for neighborhood councils during charter-reform discussions of the 1990s because it was divided among multiple City Council districts and never could coalesce to demand better services — so many people have resigned in anger that they left no quorum, and no one with authority to even call a new election to replenish the board. In Westchester, residents were so geared up over the possibility of outside takeover that they demanded (illegally) to see income-tax statements or property-tax bills before allowing stakeholders to vote.
In what was once known as the 8th District Empowerment Congress, South L.A.’s widely touted precursor to neighborhood councils, community leaders say they are lost without the guiding hand of organizer and ex-Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and neighbors rail at a raft of procedures and processes they never had to deal with in the congress’s early days. In Cypress Park, a stone’s throw from Lincoln Heights, more than one meeting has ended with a call to the police.
In many areas already shaped by strong participation from a homeowners association, a chamber of commerce or an activist group, the new councils do appear to be thriving. For people in those neighborhoods, mostly on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, the virtual velvet rope that long separated residents from an insiders-only City Hall is being replaced, slowly, by a welcome mat and an open door. In newspaper headlines, councils are credited with rolling back water rates, blocking a Police Commission policy on burglar alarms, and gaining a voice into whether to spend city money to hire more police, for example, or pave more streets. The players — stakeholders, in L.A. parlance — have begun to develop a healthy lust for participation at the most fundamental level of democratic society.