Grassroots democracy is, by all accounts, a good thing. But is there such a thing as too much democracy? L.A.'s continuing experiment with neighborhood councils suggests at times that the answer is yes.
The most recent example occurred in Studio City, where Michael McCue was booted from the Neighborhood Council board. He was removed after being repeatedly branded a liar and a disruptive force, and after being told by a fellow board member to “shut the fuck up.”
But a grievance-committee review of McCue's removal found flaws in every step of the process. In the wake of the committee's report last week, observers warn of the dangers of subjecting council members — elected by their communities — to the equivalent of a public trial by other council members.
“Mr. McCue was publicly humiliated for no good reason, on charges that were so vague, he could not prepare a case against them,” says Dr. Bob Gelfand of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition, whose members come from many of the 91 councils across the city. “We need a citywide process that does not allow a board to sit in a trial of one of their fellow board members.”
Indeed, the city is trying to create a removal template, a framework for all the city councils, rather than leave the issue of colleagues judging colleagues up to each council.
As currently envisioned, the template would create basic removal guidelines rather than impose a strict set of rules, but the final version is still being drafted by the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
Like many city councils, neighborhood councils sometimes have personality disputes masquerading as policy disagreements. But unlike more established democratic institutions, neighborhood councils often lack the standards and conventions that can put the brakes on extreme behavior.
Council board members around the city have been asked or forced to resign over the last eight years. One council recently insisted on accepting a board member's resignation, even though she rescinded it five minutes after submitting it.
But no one could recall a case quite like McCue's. Fellow board members, frustrated by his independent, outspoken ways, were determined to expel him a month before an election, when voters would have their own say in the matter.
The grievance-committee report and a video of the meeting at which McCue was tossed out provide a rare look at the rough-and-tumble politics often practiced at the grassroots level.
Dozens of McCue's supporters, who showed up to speak on his behalf, were limited to one minute of public comment each by President Ben Neumann — not the usual three minutes afforded members of the public. Later they were told by board member Lisa Sarkin that their opinions didn't matter because they had not attended past meetings.
That remark provoked the fiercest reaction of the night: nearly a full minute of booing, hissing and shouting.
The report also noted that Neumann did not provide a neutral tone in presiding over the meeting, and had circulated an e-mail critical of McCue just hours before the meeting, giving at least the appearance of impropriety.
Neumann did not return several calls from the Weekly seeking comment.
Most importantly, according to the report, there was not enough specificity in the charges to allow McCue to prepare a factual defense. It also found that the board's bylaws were vague.
“I'm shocked that anyone from the City Attorney's Office would have approved that document as adequate to remove someone from office,” says Paul Hatfield, who writes the influential Village-to-Village blog.
The committee's report noted that Deputy City Attorney Darren Martinez, who advised the Studio City board on how to proceed with the removal, did not respond to the committee's own repeated requests for information. McCue says he tried to reach Martinez a half-dozen times before the meeting and never heard back. Martinez also did not respond to the Weekly's repeated requests for comment.
“The city attorney's role in all this needs to be examined,” Gelfand says. “Why did they assist one side and not the other?”
When McCue's supporters finally were able to speak during the meeting, they compared the board to a lynch mob trying to thwart the will of the voters by turning festering personality disputes into something far more serious: the political assassination of a passionate public advocate. McCue himself was outraged that three of his fellow board members — Todd Royal, Rita Villa and Barbara Monahan-Burke — had signed a petition of removal against him. McCue countered with his own description of events in the various long-simmering disputes of protocol and policy that had divided the board.
McCue also heatedly demanded specifics of actual wrongdoing in what he describes as personality-based accusations and hinted at the culture clash lurking just below the surface.
It was a clash unspoken but unmistakable as the night wore on: McCue is a flamboyant green-and-gay liberal. Most of his harshest critics are conservatives, who, he says, are uncomfortable with his verbose, heart-on-his-sleeve style.
“You have to wonder if there was any homophobia involved in what they were doing to him,” Gelfand notes. “There was real ugliness in that room. It felt unjust and un-American.”
Today, McCue claims a double dose of vindication. He was re-elected to the board five weeks after being kicked off, and the grievance committee found evidence of bias against him.
“The final result of the whole mess just re-affirms my core values of faith in grassroots democracy,” he says. “In the end, the democratic system worked, and the bad guys lost.”
But he admits that the removal meeting was excruciating. The 8-4 vote barely met the two-thirds quorum requirement that Neumann had decided was sufficient. Customarily, the requirement is two-thirds of the 15-member board.
After the vote, Neumann asked McCue to exit the room as quickly as possible. The venom on both sides was palpable, as he slowly packed up and left the meeting.
“I think they all owe Michael a public apology for what they did to him, and an apology to the stakeholders, too,” Hatfield tells the Weekly. “It was shameful in a political community that cares about fair play and due process.”
The three board members who signed the petition calling for McCue's removal tell the Weekly they will not apologize.
“No, because Michael lied,” says Monahan-Burke. When asked for specifics, she hung up.
“No apologies, no regrets,” says Royal, who refused to comment further.
“The grievance committee didn't find anything wrong with the removal or with the process, only with the bylaws,” Villa says. “Why should I apologize?”
The raw tone of the meeting was crystallized by one emotional scene. McCue, tired of the repeated accusation that he talked to and about other board members in a demeaning way, fired back with an example of the abuse dished out to him that evening: He recounted how the board member sitting next to him, Ron Taylor, had leaned in moments earlier and told him to “shut the fuck up” while another board member had the microphone.
McCue turned to Taylor and challenged him to deny his account. Taylor declined to do so.
Taylor tells the Weekly that he does not regret the remark and will not apologize.
“As usual, Michael was behaving very disruptively, so I said to him, in an attempt to be helpful, that you're not helping yourself and you should shut the fuck up. That's all I said. I was just trying to help him, and he had to go and make it public at the first opportunity.”
With neither side backing down and both sides claiming victory following the release of the grievance report, Jane Drucker, who chairs the grievance committee, was asked to summarize the report's bottom line. “The entire process should be tightened up. It needs to be more difficult to remove someone. Right now it's too easy.”