This past Wednesday, as part of my campaign for the Los Angeles City Council, I launched a series of 13 roundtable discussions on single-topic issues that are important to people in the District. In a discussion on Neighborhood Councils, the agenda included the following conversation starters:
1. How can the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (now called "Empower LA") better serve Neighborhood Councils?
2. How can NCs make a positive impact on improving the system and better represent the community's interests?
3. What are structural challenges that affect the success of NCs?
4. How can city leaders positively impact the system and encourage wider participation?
There were 15 people in attendance representing three certified NCs, and one not yet certified. I later conducted an interview with a board member representing a fourth NC who was unable to attend the discussion. Opinions and ideas about NCs varied widely among the participants. There were people who had served on NC Boards in the early 2000s, people who helped form NCs, and people who only attend NC meetings and participate in NC committees, then report back to their neighborhoods.
The general criticisms: The department was never set up to provide enough guidance to NC participants; the department staff is not set up to be successful and responsive enough to NCs and attendees to NC meetings (too many cuts); the department has not been adequately funded; political leaders actually want NCs to fail, that the department's lack of support is intentional, and the department has always had a "hands off" approach.
General perceptions expressed, more or less based on the criticisms: Without proper guidance, some NCs have become fiefdoms, doling out money only based on personal interests, some NC's function very well because their board members actively stay engaged and connected, that the department is too "maxed out" or just avoids returning phone calls or responding to complaints, that some NCs are relevant and respected, while others are not, that some NCs are another barrier between neighborhoods and the city, and lack of guidance has allowed conflict of interest to sometimes interfere with NC Board decisions.
Some people feel funding should be restored to the $50,000 NCs used to have every year while others felt they should not have any discretionary funding at all. Some people felt the department should be shut down and NCs should be administered in a more minimal way and/or issues should be arbitrated by a City Attorney.
Out of the criticisms, several suggestions emerged: NCs and the department need more structural support, and they need city leaders to play a role in developing that structure and seeing that it is put into place so NC Board Members and NC participants can feel that their volunteer time is appreciated, useful, and supported.
This structure includes:
• The exact same City Attorney approved by laws for all NCs as a base, while allowing individual NCs to adopt tailored standing rules (which must also be approved by a 3rd party) to better serve the individual needs of a particular NC.
• Disallow indefinite terms for Board Members, develop a filing, scheduling, and arbitration system for complaints and grievances that involve a 3rd party not associated with the NC being complained or grieved against.
• Allow NC election polling places to take place in more than one location (for example, one NC had their single polling place in a wealthy neighborhood that possibly discouraged turnout from other parts of the community or disenfranchised some).
• Impose website rules (possibly overseen by the department) so that information is available without having to register.
• Enact conflict of interest rules that keep Board decisions in check.
• Develop criteria that guides NCs to fund activities and groups in a more enlightened way.
• Integrate professionals in helping to mentor NC Board Members where needed so they may be set up to successfully deal with challenges.
• Independently manage and measure outreach and participation that is tied to awarding NC funding.
• Impose a citywide code of conduct that must be adhered to or have consequences that include removal of Board Members.
In summation: Since there are thousands of intelligent, altruistic people volunteering on NC Boards and attending meetings across the city, the city must find a way to foster their volunteer spirit. We must encourage participation, but we must provide clear guidelines so that passions don't get the best of anyone and create deep, festering divisions. The trick is to draw out the best that people have to offer in an environment where tension and disagreements naturally occur, and that is trickiest at the most local level!
I think once a complaint and grievance is filed, it represents a failure and leads down a very demoralizing road for everyone. We need to provide structure so that complaints and grievances are very rare. With a strong enough framework, I believe we can achieve that, and reach that balance where collaboration through our differences becomes the standard.
Having said that, I believe the majority of NCs function well and have made a very positive difference in the District and the city, but let us not pretend there are not some problems with the NC system. I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!
Next round table topic: Public Safety (June 20, location TBA), followed by Infrastructure & public works, Transportation, Youth & Education, Seniors, Business & Economic Development, Animal Welfare, the City’s Budget Deficit, Housing Policy, Homeless & Veterans issues, Planning/Development, Environmental Policy and the Los Angeles River.