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Not in My Neighborhood Council 

What can save L.A.’s broken neighborhood councils?

Thursday, Aug 26 2004
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Page 6 of 9

“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.

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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.

“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.”

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