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
“We do have to create policies and rules and standards,” Lyon said. “We are creating our own red tape. I don’t see any way around that. For the co-chairs, it’s like another full-time job.”
Even Janice Hahn, the mayor’s sister, who as an elected charter-reform commissioner championed the idea of neighborhood councils, and now on the City Council remains the institution’s biggest cheerleader, said this was never what she had in mind. Under the Brown Act, a council that meets monthly may have to take almost two months before there is a vote on an important issue — more, if board members want to hear from constituents.
And more and more councils seem to be voluntarily indulging in additional bureaucracy. For example, many councils have mirrored the City Council by setting up land-use committees and public-safety subcommittees. At a recent Central Area Planning Commission meeting, where appointed city officials were mulling whether to yank a bar’s conditional use permit, the Mid-City West Community Council rep was there to offer guidance. But no guidance was forthcoming. “We have not been able to put this on the agenda and bring this in front of our planning and land-use committee yet,” she told frustrated planning officials.
Instead of batting about ideas over the phone and meeting for quick action, councils are rolling out their own cumbersome procedures. Where some city residents used to urge City Hall to hurry up with services, reforms and information, they now are offering a surprising refrain: “Don’t rush us.”
The democracy scare has become the bureaucracy scare.
“This bureaucracy is tending to make them irrelevant on issues that are of major importance,” Janice Hahn said. “I saw this as a sort of grassroots volunteer effort. I envisioned maybe a hot issue comes up, and everyone gets on a phone tree, and on Saturday they all show up and they vote. But the City Attorney’s Office told us that was illegal.”
There are apparent successes, of course, like the rollback of DWP rates. On a rainy day in early March, one of the top men at the Department of Water and Power was just finishing up his PowerPoint presentation to the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council on the need for an 18 percent rate hike when Jim Alger pulled up to the library building, strode in, folded his arms across his chest and waited.
“It’s nice to see that the DWP is changing their presentation as we learn more about the true reasons for the rate increase,” Alger huffed. “But with all due respect to Gerry, he wouldn’t be here but for this opposition.”
Alger, an organizer of the Northridge West Neighborhood Council (in formation), was right. A young man with a grave demeanor and no qualms about lecturing city officials, he said later he couldn’t decide what angered him more: the flimsy and constantly shifting reasons the department was giving for raising rates or the contention by the water agency’s brass that neighborhood councils “just aren’t interested.”
Gewe admitted he had been wrong about that latter point, but he told the dozen or so board members of the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council that the water rates had to be jacked up anyway, and fast, to protect the DWP’s bond rating. It was like throwing a bloody steak to the sharks. Why, Neighborhood Council board members demanded, do you think we care about the agency’s bond rating?
One by one, the Eagle Rock board members took common cause with the man from Northridge West. More than 20 other councils did the same.
“This is the kind of thing we had in mind for neighborhood councils all along,” enthused Janice Hahn, on the City Council floor. Newspaper editorials acknowledged the councils for showing “clout” and handing stakeholders a victory over City Hall arrogance, and for setting aside local concerns to join in citywide action for all neighborhoods.
But it may not have been as sweeping a rout for neighborhood councils as it first appeared. DWP rate hikes have been stopped before due to the outrage and action of the people who were most affected: ratepayers. The same thing happened more than a decade ago, without neighborhood councils, when ratepayers responded to a crippling drought by saving water and the DWP prepared to jack up rates to make up for lost revenues. Tenants don’t generally pay for water, but ratepayers — homeowners and businesses — had the ability to mobilize and pressure the City Council to make the DWP drop its plan.
A June report by USC professor Juliet Musso of the Neighborhood Participation Project showed that 63 percent of neighborhood-council participants are homeowners, in a city where more than 70 percent of residents rent. It is that 70 percent, without clout at City Hall, that neighborhood councils were meant to empower but have yet to include. This time out, the councils — not all of them, mind you, but just about two dozen from places with high rates of homeownership and business participation — stood up for stakeholders who already had access through homeowners associations and chambers of commerce.
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