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
Landfill operators have requested permission to raise the height of their garbage mountain by another 43 feet. The Neighborhood Council is leaning toward approval.
“We already have 80 times more asthma than on other campuses” because of the monstrous garbage dump, Jaye asserts. If it is raised, “Kids in our play yard would not be able to see the mountains.”
Jaye and others in the area dismissed the neighborhood council as a shill for the Chamber of Commerce and turned instead to the L.A. Metro Alliance. In communities around the city, L.A. Metro, now called One L.A. IAF, is attempting to rekindle the fire once ignited in Los Angeles by the Industrial Areas Foundation — the organization founded many years ago by Alinsky.
In Pico-Union, in Watts, in Van Nuys, in Lincoln Heights, in Sun Valley, One L.A. IAF leaders are organizing neighbors to fight for their communities. There are no cumbersome elections, no paperwork requirements, no monetary enticements from City Hall, no charter or ordinance dictates that bar the groups from changing their form when the need arises.
“We don’t want government money, because this is our institution,” said One L.A. organizer Father Mike Montoya of Precious Blood Catholic Church near downtown. “We work to develop local leaders to become citizens in the fullest sense. We work to hold our public officials accountable. That’s democracy.”
Raphael Sonenshein, the Cal State Fullerton political-science professor who led one of two charter-reform commissions that put the idea of neighborhood councils to voters, said much of L.A., angry at its leadership and preparing to vote on secession, expected councils that would pose Alinsky-style confrontation. But the smaller cities documented in Rebirth had developed a more cooperative relationship between neighborhoods and government.
“I came to believe that neighborhood democracy and the Alinsky model are both great but they’re different,” Sonenshein said. “You can’t really get on the government payroll to dump garbage on the mayor’s lawn.”
But Sonenshein added that it was important not to go too far in the other direction. “You don’t want to have an arm of government that can’t breathe,” Sonenshein said. “You have to walk a line between confrontation and subservience.”
Some councils have no problem walking that line. The Tarzana council, for example, grew out of and is to a large extent run by the Tarzana Property Owners Association, one of a handful of homeowners groups that hold sway in the south end of the Valley. The TPOA long ago mastered the art and science of crossing the City Hall velvet rope and making the bureaucracy work for the well-to-do homeowners in the south Valley.
Leonard Shaffer, president of both groups, knows that developers will check in with him before trying to push a project through City Hall. The TPOA raised enough of a ruckus in years past that elected officials won’t talk to builders who haven’t first gone to the association. Shaffer likes the fact that with his new neighborhood-council title he now represents a broader spectrum of the community, and he likes the extra courtesies he gets as a council leader. “They kind of treat you a little bit like staff,” Shaffer said. “That’s an advantage.”
But there are disadvantages too.
“You can’t act as fast,” he said. “You are subject to the Brown Act. That’s a hindrance. To do anything, you’ve got to get a quorum together, and you can’t just do it over the phone. And the way you have to hold elections — it’s a pain in the backside.”
Jill Banks Barad, a board member of the United Chambers of Commerce who helps lead the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, agrees. Her group and Shaffer’s are often at odds because hers is dominated by business, Shaffer’s by homeowners. But their complaint is the same.
“Business people are used to moving quicker,” she said. “When you look at the City Council, it’s the staffs that do all of the work, and they aren’t under the Brown Act, so they can deliberate with one another. But whenever we do it, we have to call a public meeting.”
One former neighborhood-council organizer from the Westside who now works inside City Hall said that councils that lack a dual identity, like Tarzana’s, can quickly run aground on the rules and regulations that are heaped on them.
“The spirit and intent of neighborhood councils somehow went awry,” the staffer lamented. “They have become part of the city bureaucracy.”
That’s what separates the councils from the citizen-lobbyists that Nelson envisioned. Lobbyists know their way around City Hall, know which hands to shake, which bureaucrats to press for information, which campaigns to bolster with donations. But they don’t have to hold open meetings or process a flurry of paperwork, unless it’s of their own making.
Jason Lyon, of the Silver Lake council, acknowledged that conducting outreach, as the city’s rules require, and putting on elections, and posting adequate notice and running meetings take up a huge chunk of the group’s time and energy.
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