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
Another plan, for which no charter amendment was needed, was simply to pay organizers to canvass the city, pull people together and get out of the way. The new groups might incorporate, or join with private firms, or do almost anything. No Brown Act, no financial disclosure. But to most charter reformers the plan did not require enough action from City Hall.
Nelson testified before both commissions, trying the patience of members with his philosophical meanderings. Charter reformers ended up so far apart on neighborhood councils that the elected commission nearly put a separate proposal on the ballot dealing only with formal, boroughlike elected boards.
Under a last-minute compromise, though, the 1999 reform charter included a vague notion of self-selected advisory groups, with the details to be filled in later.
Riordan never showed much enthusiasm for reinventing democracy and let councils drift as his opponents, such as Goldberg, demanded that the reins be handed over to professional community organizers. The new Department of Neighborhood Empowerment waffled between focusing on communities most in need of training and outreach, like Lincoln Heights, or the already organized neighborhoods in the Valley that were champing at the bit for a shot at city funding and a reason, maybe, to vote against secession. Neither DONE, as it became known, nor its supervising Board of Neighborhood Commissioners — labeled “BONC” or “bonkers” by frustrated activists — seemed to be accomplishing much.
A typical community orientation session consisted of interested but impatient neighbors asking, “What do we do?” and DONE employees responding, “What do you want to do?”
Jim Hahn changed everything on his election as mayor in 2001 by ousting the DONE leadership and appointing Nelson to lead the department, and by allocating $50,000 for each certified council. Hahn vowed to listen to these citizen-lobbyists on budget decisions, and began meeting with neighborhood leaders in City Hall and in libraries, school auditoriums and community centers around Los Angeles.
“Neighborhood councils were languishing,” Hahn explained. “It was an idea that wasn’t getting the support of City Hall. It appeared to me we were struggling to get started, and so I wanted to spend a lot of effort in the first few weeks and months of my administration seeing what we could do to kind of take something that had been a little bit moribund and put it more onto the front burner.”
The cash made council organizers feel they were working for something important. But it also cemented the notion that neighborhood councils are part of city government, operating under city auspices, even though they are officially only “advisory.”
City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s office, in one ruling after another, said neighborhood councils had to be as open and aboveboard as any city body. Members had to disclose personal financial data, filling out the official (and despised) state Form 700. Meeting locations had to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Agendas had to be posted in five public places, 72 hours in advance. No discussions could take place that were not on the agenda, which means that a council that meets monthly could rarely do anything in less than 30 days. Councils could not incorporate, borrow money or encumber property. They could lease office space and hire employees — but only under the strictest rules, and only after enabling laws were debated and passed by the City Council. Delgadillo is looking for legal ways out of the morass, but the new charter and state law have painted him, and the councils, into a corner.
The price of crossing the velvet rope into City Hall was full immersion in the bureaucracy.
And councils bore an extra burden: They had to be “inclusive.” Any group that left out homeowners, renters, business owners, workers, houses of worship or members of several other categories would never get certified. But while the rules for posting agendas and the like were even stricter than for the City Council, election rules were amazingly lax. The only rule of eligibility for voting in a council election is that you be a “stakeholder” in the neighborhood.
The word is pure L.A. civic culture, simultaneously evoking a certain insiders-only exclusivity and ending up so broad that it takes in pretty much anyone. You just have to live there, or work there, or worship there, or shop there, or own property there, perhaps drive through or, in the words of Charles Brink of the Northridge Neighborhood Council (never certified by BONC), eat a hamburger there. When the City Council was debating the rules for starting up the new neighborhood panels, back in 1999, then-Councilwoman Ruth Galanter famously complained that the word stakeholderwas almost meaningless, sounding instead like it meant a vampire, or maybe a hibachi.
Allowing any stakeholder to vote opened councils to charges that they were being swept by organized blocs bused in for that very purpose. In Westchester, a winning slate did indeed bring in a host of voters from the Playa Vista project to sway the election, and, yes, the victors repaid them with pizza and beer (that council recently voted to approve the next phase of the controversial Playa Vista project). In downtown, a candidate enticed a high school class to come down and cast ballots. The Church of Scientology had an ample turnout of members for the Hollywood United council election, sparking scuttlebutt that Scientologists were plotting to take over the city. The Agape Church was rumored to be planning to move in on the Mar Vista council. And in Central L.A., south of the Santa Monica Freeway, Vernon-Main Neighborhood Council President Eddie Reyes has plans — according to the chief target of his ire, Councilwoman Jan Perry — to take over the board of every single other council in the district.