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Neighborhood Councils: How Effective Are They?

13 years after their establishment, Neighborhood Councils are still finding their footing.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, columnist Jim Newton yesterday posted an interesting piece on the current state of Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils. 

Emerging from the contentious charter reform battle of 1999, neighborhood councils were formed to serve as an intermediary between Angelenos and their city government.

Thirteen years after they were first established, Newton notes, it's still unclear whether neighborhood councils are fulfilling their potential to increase civic engagement.

It's been 10 years since the first of the councils rolled out, and they have yet to prove either as revolutionary as their backers hoped or as obstructionist as their opponents feared. And yet, as councils across the city prepare for a new round of elections this summer and fall, they are growing in strength, forming connections to one another and, gradually, becoming an indispensable aspect of Los Angeles politics.

Newton points to the role played by neighborhood councils in establishing a Department of Water and Power ratepayer advocate as evidence of their growing influence over civic affairs. Neighborhood Councils in the West Valley have also been key players in shaping planned developments in their corner of the city. 

Neighborhood Councils have been active in the Northeast as well.

The has used its annual budget allotment--typically around $40,000--to support academic programs at local schools and community beautification projects. The same can be said for the , which represents the neighborhoods of Montecito Heights, Monterey Hills, Mount Washington, Hermon and Sycamore Grove.

However, neighborhood councils are poorly attended, with council members often outweighing attendees. The majority of those who do attend are usually there to seek funding for local projects.

Councils have also been marred by in-fighting. The Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council is currently seeking to navigate its way out the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment's (DONE) Exahustive Measures program. They were placed in the program--which strips them of the power to run meetings or make budget decisions--after DONE caught wind of extensive .

Despite their struggles, Neighborhood Councils seem likely persevere and will hold another set of elections this summer.

Whether they reach their potential as an instrument for citizens to leverage elected officials remains to be seen, and rests largely in the hands of the populace their were created to empower.

As it stands, the primary business of Neighborhood Councils seems to be measuring out their limited funds to support community projects on a first come, first serve basis. Often, they work outside the supervision of constituencies that cannot be bothered to attend meetings. Participation in Neighborhood Councils has been historically abysmal, even when measured .

When it comes to fulfilling their original purpose, Neighborhood Councils can only be as effective as Angelenos force them to be. Council members can't speak on the behalf of their constituencies if they're not talking.

Highland Park residents can get involved in their local neighborhood council on Thursday. A .pdf of the agenda is attached above. If you don't like what you see, elections are coming later this summer.

Hooper Humperdink July 05, 2012 at 05:58 PM
Neighborhood Councils are fundamentally flawed in their conception. You take a room full of the most active members of a community, the people with the time and inclination to work to better the place, and tell them, "Now you are all here, I want you to know that you cannot work together outside of meetings that are in compliance with the Brown Act." How do you get anything done when you are legally restricted from working together to get things done? All of this legal encumbrance is due to the measly stack of cash handed out to the NC's. This money is, literally, worthless. Worse, it is probably a net loss to the community as the benefit of these volunteers would be ten-fold the $40,000 the council is given to spend each year. What all the meetings I have been to lack is consistent facilitation of discussion. They lack a regular honing of the groups ideas and goals. What happens is, the most boring and stupid "win" (dominate the discussion), and get to dole out the pittance they are in charge of and sit back on their butts and become "advisory" or "information only" bodies. NC's need to be the direct change agents. The funding dedicated to these groups should go towards hiring a full or part time facilitator of meetings, writer of minutes, copier of papers, online content manager, etc. The NC needs to be the launch pad for the board to do good work. Not the thumbs up, thumbs down "advisory" board they are today, hamstrung by the Brown Act.
Hooper Humperdink July 05, 2012 at 06:03 PM
I'll boil it down this way: Neighborhood Councils are the cheapest gadfly abatement program money can buy. For $40,000 a year per council, a local politician can legally restrict his or her worst political enemies from ever talking or working together outside of Brown Act compliant meetings. How do you organize for change in your community when the City Attorney can step in an send you to jail or fine you for talking with your neighbors about what you're going to do in the next election cycle? I got the hell out of the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council once I read through the Brown Act and realized all that crap applied to me. No more street cleaning, no more email, no more blog comments, no more forum discussions - without the looming threat of the Brown Act being used an ace up the sleeve by anyone in city hall that didn't like what I had to say. There are good reasons why jack and sh^& get done by most councils.
philip iglauer July 08, 2012 at 09:12 PM
NCs have galvanized and trained literally 1000s of politically and community-oriented residents here in LA. Think of it. SOme 95 NCs with 15-30 board members each as well as those who are not on the boards but actively take part in NC functions have learned valuable civic lessons and gained experience in communicating with City Hall (not just the electeds but department staff and police SLOs too). NCs with all their flaws have contributed to building better public citizens here in LA. The main thing NC need to focus on is outreach, in my opinion. Board members need to walk door-to-door, make phone calls, and send emails to their neighbors to try to inspire them to attend a meeting. The NCs should also think about making meetings as professional, concise, and producitve as possible in order to inspire those same neighbors to return for a second meeting. NCs impact on LA's political skyline is a net positive. ^^
philip iglauer July 08, 2012 at 09:14 PM
NCs have inspired and trained literally 1000s of politically and community-oriented residents here in LA. Think of it. SOme 95 NCs with 15-30 board members each as well as those who are not on the boards but actively take part in NC functions have learned valuable civic lessons and gained experience in communicating with City Hall (not just the electeds but department staff and police SLOs too). NCs with all their flaws have contributed to building better public citizens here in LA. The main thing NC need to focus on is outreach, in my opinion. Board members need to walk door-to-door, make phone calls, and send emails to their neighbors to try to inspire them to attend a meeting. The NCs should also think about making meetings as professional, concise, and producitve as possible in order to inspire those same neighbors to return for a second meeting. NCs impact on LA's political skyline is a net positive. ^^
JosephR July 09, 2012 at 04:58 PM
For anyone truly interested in taking this conversation to the next level, there will be a local opportunity -- shortly, on the eveing of July 31, at a location TBD in the Northeast/East area. The meeting is being convened by one of the City's Neighborhood Commissioners (Paul Park) who chairs a sub-committee that's been drafting a document to help NC leaders "better achieve their mission of being conduits to City government for their neighborhood stakeholders." He's looking for feedback on how NCs should run their meetings, communicate with stakeholders, handle their finances, what kind of training the elected boards should take, and how NC boards can become "inclusive and reflective of their communities" -- among other issues. (If the "Patch" folks would like to post the commission-generated proposed "Rules & Standards" document that will be discussed there, I'll send it along, as well).

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