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
A slate of candidates aligned with the longshore-workers union unseated most of the founders of the Central San Pedro council. But the most notorious coup was in Venice, where the “progressive” slate defeated the founding Grass Roots Venice board. That was the election, famous in neighborhood-council circles, in which Marta Evry marked a ballot on behalf of her dog to try to show Nelson that voting procedures were unfair. Nelson was unimpressed.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is less concerned about voting that’s too lax than it is about voting that’s too restrictive. Its biggest headaches included the election in Valley Glen, where the council banned anyone without a valid driver’s license, passport or green card from voting. Anyone claiming to be a resident had to prove it with a utility bill. Business stakeholders had to show a business license. The department struck down the council’s rules on the ground that they were meant to keep out illegal residents and to intimidate legal immigrants.
Meanwhile, the supposedly interim board members of some neighborhood councils that were certified months ago still haven’t scheduled their first election. The Foothill Trails council, the South Robertson group, Greater Cypress Park and West Adams all got hauled before the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners to explain just why they haven’t submitted their names to the people. Responses from councils like theirs sound disturbingly like the line uttered by caudillos in Third World countries: Our people are not ready for the vote.
But Greg Nelson, whose devotion to neighborhood councils erased the last tinge of blond from his now-gray hair, broke up his marriage, keeps him at BONC and neighborhood-council meetings past midnight, and spurs him to vocally defend the young institution at every opportunity, sees progress and empowerment. He pointed out that some council elections have drawn far more people than regular city votes. In Watts, for example, only 294 voters turned out for the May 2003 general election. But in voting for the Watts neighborhood council later that month, a whopping 1,104 people cast their ballots.
Take those numbers with a grain of salt. After all, there wasn’t much on the city ballot for Watts residents to vote on in May 2003. Still — one voter for every 20 residents. Not history-making, but not a bad show for a community election.
The rumored Agape Church takeover at the Mar Vista council never materialized, by the way. And, as for the Scientologists, their sinister plot to control neighborhood councils can be relegated to the urban-myths file. Hundreds of church members did turn out to elect their one candidate to the single “business” seat on the Hollywood board, but that’s it.
But there are those election rules. And disputes over who is a stakeholder. And with virtually anyone being a stakeholder anywhere, little can be done to block anyone from voting.
“To be honest with you, a lot of this rests on good faith,” Nelson said.
Earlier this year, USC professor Terry Cooper, the bearded guru of the neighborhood-councils movement, helped broker a pact between four neighborhood councils in the Valley and the city’s Department of Public Works. It was a far cry from the 1970s, when Cooper worked to organize Pico-Union according to the teachings of legendary community activist Saul Alinsky.
“Alinsky was all about building grassroots power through an adversarial approach,” Cooper recalled. “He would say, ‘You always have to have a devil to fight against.’ You would raise latent anger to the surface, and you would direct it at the devil. And that might be City Hall.”
The Industrial Areas Foundation activists that Alinsky inspired six decades ago in Chicago adamantly opposed working inside the existing power structure. Following city-imposed election and open-meeting rules, and certainly taking city money, were unthinkable. So was quietly negotiating an agreement with the Department of Public Works.
But Cooper said he found Alinsky-based movements always ran out of steam. He was looking for a new way of organizing neighborhoods when Greg Nelson knocked on his door unannounced a decade ago and asked for help on an idea to reinvigorate urban government. He wound up starting the Neighborhood Participation Project, a sort of think tank at USC that monitors the progress and spreads the gospel of neighborhood democracy. Cooper organized conferences that brought together thinkers, elected leaders and neighbors who made sure that charter reform included a mandate for neighborhood councils.
The Project has found that crossing the velvet rope into the City Hall bureaucracy appears to be working fine for councils in the south Valley, where wealthy homeowners have most of the clout.
But several miles north, inside an area covered by the Sun Valley Neighborhood Council, sits the Bradley landfill, where some neighbors see the council as a snare and are opting instead for, of all things, the Alinsky approach.
“Frankly, I’m afraid,” explained Jerry Piro of his attitude toward the Sun Valley council. “The vast majority of the members are people from the Chamber of Commerce who oversaw things here for 40 years. There aren’t [as many] homeowners and renters on the council as the people who have a vested interest. The guy who got the most votes at the Neighborhood Council was the manager of Bradley.”