By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Still, any survey of the city’s neighborhood boards raises questions that are all the more troubling because they are not new. They are the very same questions bandied about by lawmakers and charter framers in the 1990s but left unanswered for a simple reason: They’re just too hard.
Is it not an inherent contradiction, for example, for a city government to mandate grassroots organizing? How “independent,” how “grassroots,” can a neighborhood group remain when it is virtually on City Hall’s payroll? How much of a challenge can activists mount against the bureaucracy if city laws, regulations and policies line up to make them part of that bureaucracy?
Persevering from one question and one crisis to another is the unflappable Department of Neighborhood Empowerment General Manager Greg Nelson, a true believer who calls up bottomless reserves of patience and humor in charting a Third Way.
Nelson sees community groups that are, incongruously, both entrenched and independent. That’s impossible; except for maybe . . . There is a word that comes to mind, though Nelson stopped saying it aloud years ago after people in City Hall complained that it was unseemly. But he still believes it. To Nelson, neighborhood councils in Los Angeles could become — lobbyists. Lobbyists for the people.
“They can have the power and the access,” Nelson asserts. “It’s not like anywhere else. What we’re doing has never been done before. By allowing neighborhoods to take for themselves the power that up to now has only been held by insiders, we are changing the political culture of a city.”( Illustrations by Chandler Wood)
Los Angeles thinkers, activists and political leaders, reeling from the deadly Rodney King riots of 1992, were grasping for some understanding of how so many thousands of people could feel so alienated from their city and their neighborhoods that they would so readily torch them. The San Fernando Valley was moving toward secession, as were San Pedro, Hollywood, even Eagle Rock and the Westside. Neighborhoods were being named, marked off and patrolled not by families or city officials but by gangs. The city was falling apart.
Some people sought an answer of sorts in what came to be called the neighborhood-councils movement. Advocates of a city government more closely in tune with the people it was supposed to serve pored through the 1993 book The Rebirth of Urban Democracy, which detailed successful neighborhood-based advisory panels in smaller cities like Birmingham, Alabama, and Dayton, Ohio.
Rebirth became the bible of the movement. USC professor and former neighborhood activist Terry Cooper read it, as did Greg Nelson, top staff aide to Councilman Joel Wachs. On Richard Riordan’s election as mayor, a power struggle between him and the council turned into a drive for the first new city charter since 1925, and Cooper, Nelson, Wachs and a host of activists made sure neighborhood councils became part of the discussion.
While everyone could agree that the solution to the problems of city government was named “neighborhood councils,” they never quite agreed on just what a Los Angeles neighborhood council was. Who would serve? What would they do? What would be their relationship to City Hall?
Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas set up an Empowerment Congress, where his mostly African-American constituents gathered, debated and, for the first time, learned the mechanisms of city governance. Mike Feuer set up two boards in his district and let residents pick their own leaders. Other council members appointed their own advisory groups. Wachs, who never created councils in his own district, wanted 103 of them in Los Angeles and expected that after they formed they would be free to raise money, incorporate, lobby politicians, and reinvent the civic structure of Los Angeles by getting together to discuss issues.
But the neighborhood-council discussion really got going only when it was taken up by two competing charter-reform commissions. An elected charter commission wanted elected councils, representing what were essentially boroughs or minicities, controlling their taxpayer-funded budgets, with formal elections. The plan drew high praise in the secessionist Valley, where leaders saw neighborhood councils as an avenue of escape from an oppressive City Hall.
But that plan would have dashed the hopes of reformers who saw at the very heart of the new democratic institution an unprecedented opportunity for noncitizen immigrants, who made up a growing percentage of Los Angeles residents, to participate in civic life.
Big business saw decision-making councils as Ã¼ber–homeowners groups with newfound power to kill any growth or development. Construction unions agreed. Nonprofit groups offered surprisingly harsh opposition based on their belief that they could never get proposals for an AIDS-care home, for example, or for subsidized housing, past strong neighbor-based boards.
Disappointed backers of powerful councils began referring, sardonically, to the “democracy scare.”
But the appointed charter commission also seemed less than keen on elected decision-making panels, and its skepticism reflected the feeling in South L.A., where people like those who joined Ridley-Thomas’ Empowerment Congress saw councils not as a step away from City Hall, as they did in the Valley, but as a long-sought giant leap inside of it. Advisory councils emerged as one possible solution, but not everyone signed on to the idea. “Student councils!” sniffed Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg.
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