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Grasping for the Ring of Power

Los Angeles neighborhood leaders who meet this weekend for their semi-annual congress find themselves pushing their panels through infancy and into adolescence by demanding respect — and unprecedented power — from City Hall. The Saturday session is to include talks on whether neighborhood councils will form a powerful citywide body that can bat around touchy issues like whether to expand public financing for office seekers. That puts the advisory groups in the direct path of City Council power. But the most sweeping advance of neighborhood panels into the belly of the civic beast has already forced City Council members and bureaucrats to confront the prospect of sharing one of their most precious treasures — exclusive control over the City Hall file process. So the Ring of Power in the city is — filing? Sort of. Nothing happens in City Hall until it is assigned a file number, and that only happens when a request comes from a City Council member or department official. But for a neighborhood council to get something going, it has to get the blessing of its City Council member. That’s how Jason Lyon of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council made sure Los Angeles was on record supporting a same-sex marriage bill. AB-19, by Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco, which sought to recognize the right to same-sex marriage, failed in the state Assembly, apparently mooting a support resolution making its way through the City Council. But Lyon refused to let the matter drop, pressing a City Council committee to keep the resolution alive by putting the full council on record in support of any future same-sex marriage equity bill introduced in the Legislature. He and several of his colleagues prevailed as the city’s Arts, Health and Humanities Committee on Tuesday accepted the amendment. But they got to that point only with the help of Councilman Eric Garcetti. Now the Silver Lake panel and a host of others are trying to persuade city officials to let them get other things started in City Hall without going to the elected officials first. Lyon said the plan would help the neighborhood boards, although advisory, fulfill their promise. “This is what we were meant to do,” he said. Neighborhood councils already have won themselves a seat at the table on talks with the Department of Water and Power over water rate hikes, and have scored agreements from other key city departments to keep them part of the process. Individual councils have made their mark as well. Silver Lake co-chair Roberto Haraldson hammered out a plan to include a low, $12 basic cable rate in the city’s settlement with the Adelphia franchise. It’s now in effect. But City Council members are wary of opening the filing system to neighborhood councils. “The mission of an advisory agency is to advise and not to administer,” said Councilman Tom LaBonge. But he added that he was willing to try out the idea for six months to see how it goes. Councilman Eric Garcetti said he favors Lyon’s idea in principle, but added that “some sort of filters” should be put in place to make sure neighborhood council motions, requests and ideas don’t overwhelm City Hall. “Each council file costs us something like $50,000 to open in staff time, from beginning to end, for the life of that file,” Garcetti said. Janice Hahn, who chairs the committee that monitors neighborhood councils, said she liked the idea but wanted to hear from city departments about any burdens the plan might place on them. Incoming City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, meanwhile, said the power vested in him by the voters of his 11th District should not be shared by neighborhood councils until the city gets more control over who puts the leadership of those councils in place. “A neighborhood council should be an expression of people who live in a community,” Rosendahl said. “I was elected by registered voters, and I consider that a sacred trust. A neighborhood council will remain advisory to me, and not yet have any of my power, until they represent those people.” In other words, he says, he answers to voters, not the umbrella of interests that make up neighborhood councils. Rosendahl’s district has seen several controversies over neighborhood council “stakeholders,” who can be anyone who lives, works, worships, owns property in or otherwise has an interest in the neighborhood. The Westchester neighborhood group’s makeup was determined by a vote that included construction workers at the Playa Vista development — and that council later voted to support new development there. The Venice council has had a host of problems, and Rosendahl cited an episode in which a dog supposedly voted. He said a West L.A. council election was controlled by people bused in by a church. Opening neighborhood councils to people other than residents was a key part of the agreement that resulted in councils being put in the city charter in 1999. But there continue to be controversies over the roll of nonresident stakeholders. “I think the definition of ‘stakeholder’ is ridiculous,” Rosendahl said. He added that he might favor limiting neighborhood council membership to registered voters. “I am open to a healthy discussion with the new mayor and the City Council on the subject,” he said. The change of leadership in the city — to become official next week with the inauguration of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as Rosendahl — has made some neighborhood leaders anxious about their future. Villaraigosa has said he intends to support neighborhood councils, but there have been, so far, few specifics. “He’s going to be very involved in seeing them become more effective,” said Villaraigosa spokesman Joe Ramallo. “He believes they should have more training resources. He does not want to see them function as an extension of City Hall, which is how some view them. He supports their autonomy and their role in advocacy.” But it’s unclear yet whether Villaraigosa will keep Greg Nelson, the general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (which was set up to form, certify and serve neighborhood councils), or even whether he plans to make an appearance at the congress on Saturday. That underscores fears by some that Villaraigosa would not be as big a backer of councils as departing Mayor James Hahn was. Hahn’s sister, Councilwoman Janice Hahn, noted that the new mayor did not include councils in a plan for remaking L.A. that he distributed in early June. “A lot of neighborhood councils are feeling a little nervous,” Hahn said. Villaraigosa spokesman Ramallo said there was no need for concern. “Neighborhood councils are still in many regards in their formative stages,” Ramallo said. “We want to take this movement to the next level.” Meanwhile, some elected officials said Wednesday that their strict financial reporting requirements ought to be enforced against the neighborhood groups. Each neighborhood council gets $50,000 to spend each year, but Councilwoman Jan Perry said it’s not always clear how the money is spent. One of the councils in her district, she said, got permission to spend hundreds of dollars on paint — but it was never clear if that’s how the money really was spent, or what was painted. City Council members could never get away with that, Perry said.