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LA Neighborhood Councils-is the activist community missing out?

by Marc Herbst Thursday, Aug. 09, 2001 at 6:31 PM

In 1999, Angelinos who voted elected a Charter Reform that creates a network of neighborhood councils. Some call these councils a chance to create a system of "democratic anarchy" and a "federation ofneighborhoods," others see them as another way to entrench those who allready are in power.

In December of 1999, Angelinos who turned out to vote approved City Charter Reform, which, among other things instituted the creation of the Neighborhood Councils. These councils, which act as a third tier of city governance, are seen by some as a chance to create grassroots systems of "democratic anarchy" and by others as a way to continue the disempowerment those traditionally left out city government. Is this something good that some in the activist community have ignored?

Democracy, by its very nature is a contentious thing; many forces are at play vying to control the definition of what "the people's agenda" should be. As Fred Dewey, a thinker involved with the Beyond Baroque art space in Venice who has been a part of the neighborhood council movement since 1993 suggests, the cities democratically elected leaders have created a city designed for the interests of large business interests and the police. "Our present system is out of control, look at the verdict in the first Rodney King Trial, or the way Free Trade is ruthlessly pursued...We need a reinvestment in political principals."

Modeled loosely on Portland Oregon's plan for a decentralized city government, the plan is seen by some in the city as having "potential to energize neighborhood activism and representation in the decentralized city." Community, church and business groups and the archetypical "Joe 6-pack" have been spearheading the creation of Neighborhood Councils throughout LA, their resulting proposals will be presented to the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) starting October 1st.

While at the moment many of the details regarding the creation and functioning of these councils are purposely vague; as the program goes from idea into inception, its potential powers seems to rest in the institutionalized ideal to create a more representative and reflective democracy. If the councils manage to create spaces of discourse and actual representation, they have huge potential. Some at the LA Weekly see the Community Councils as further weakening the City Council and strengthening the Mayor's office. Others counter that ideally the Councils would make the mayor immediately responsible to not 11 or 12 people, but the entire city.

The Neighborhood Councils will be funded through the city, this year the budget towards the project is approximately ,000,000 (Seed money for the project has come from the Liberty Hill, California Community Fund and other donors as well). Grant money will also be made available for Neighborhood Council Projects. If recent proposals by Mayor Hahn are enacted, all decisions by the City Council will have to provide community impact statements to the Community Councils for comment. With the City Council's oversight on planning, policing, parks, libraries and zoos, housing, economic development, and other city functions, their potential is great. The Community Councils will be sought after for input on the city budget. All city departments will be required to meet with the Neighborhood Councils quarterly and a special notification system between the city and the Councils will be instituted to disseminate information and pending decisions at City Hall.

According to the Neighborhood Council Plan ( any community group can begin the process of defining themselves as a council. The potential council must define their jurisdiction, strongly suggested in the Plan as a boundary that configures to traditional neighborhood bounds or within the service area of a city run program. The population within the boundary must be above 20.000 people. The election and selection of leaders of the councils has not been defined in The Plan in ways other than the council's leader must change every 8 years.

This October when DONE receives the first applications, City Council spokespeople say the certification will begin in earnest. They say that the DONE agency will rigorously search the applications to see that the proposed Councils stick to their ideal character as stated in the new city charter. These ideals includes statements supporting diversity and inclusion of all "Community Stakeholders" (defined by the Plan as any individual " who lives, works or owns property in a Neighborhood Council Area...Community Stakeholder may be identified by participation in... educational institutions club...homeowners associations, condominium groups...cultural groups...environmental groups...chambers of commerce, business improvement districts...redevelopment action boards). When certifying these proposals, spokespeople say the DONE will certify that a diversity of associations have been contacted and that if certain stakeholders are not present, it is only because they did not want to participate. If these criteria are not met, reportedly the councils will not be ceritfied.

What has been criticized by former councilwoman Goldberg and Reverend AltaGarcia is the poorly defined makeup of the councils. Reverend Alta Garcia told the LA Weekly this March, "the danger is that the same people, the homeowner groups who already have access to the politicians are going to stake them out as their own." For the councils to be truly affective, the City needs to be "making translation available at every meeting, making sure that the community-based agencies in the neighborhood are invited to participate." She said that the city needs to provide a de-certification procedure should particular Councils become unrepresentative of their community.

In the City's newly released guidelines, some of her concerns seem to be addressed. The city has mandated that all information regarding the creation of and maintenance of Neighborhood Councils must be announced on at least 5 posters within the area for 2 weeks. These posters must be in the 7 languages in which the city supplies ballots (Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagolag, and Vietnamese). The city does supply decertification guidelines, though reasons for decertification remain ill defined.

While business, homeowner and entrenched city oligarchy groups such as the Police and Bureaucratic Unions have spearheaded the creation of some of the councils, Fred Dewey says that the nature of the councils are to "stir public life at the grassroots level." He hopes that they will allow for an organic process to unfold, where they will be inclusive enough for disenfranchised groups to enter and demand a voice as stakeholders in the community.

"While my neighbors may not be into recycling; they might think its a communist plot, when it comes to police brutality and an entrenched city hall bureaucracy, they can form a powerful coalition to stand on political principal." The Councils, Fred says, have the potential to create a system that stands on principals regarding public life, community self governance and human rights, as opposed to a system whose principles are dedicated to institutional self-preservation. He says that "progressives actively concerned with freedom must understand how deep the political corruption goes, if they don't they are going to loose."

Fred asks that if LA had an active "federation of neighborhoods" with invested constituencies, would the huge corporate flight that has occurred in LA have happened? With all the tax breaks and all the public investments the corporations got, their disinvestments wouldn't have happened, it would "cause riots."

There are presently many inconsistencies in the project. An open and popular system of diseminating information on and from Neighborhood Councils has yet to be created. Each neighborhood's council's actual constitions are yet to be defined. There power is yet to be defined. According to Fred Dewey, one would believe that though it will take time, its all in the works.

(this article was written with research from the LA Weekly, LA Times and interviews with Larry George, Fred Dewey and Sean Fitzgerald, spokesperson for Councilwoman Hahn.)

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