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Resisting the Los Angelization of San Diego's Town Councils

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Steve Francis

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This summer marks the 10 year anniversary of a city ordinance in Los Angeles that ostensibly breathed new life and greater relevance for grassroots community groups. Understanding the outcome of LA’s grand democratic experiment holds important lessons for San Diego, the second-largest city in California, and one that is seemingly suffering growing pains in our present day.

At issue is Measure 1, the city charter reform ballot initiative that the citizens of Los Angeles overwhelmingly passed at the polls on June 1999. In addition to handing new executive powers to the mayor, Measure 1 also opened the door for improving citizen input within local government. The charter reform ordinance mandated a citywide system of advisory neighborhood councils (NCs), the creation of a municipal agency for “neighborhood empowerment,” and an early notification system to inform residents of policy changes and legislation at City Hall that will impact their area. The diverse collection of neighborhoods in Los Angeles finally appeared to gain an unfiltered voice in local government.

Though these provisos were largely seen by the local media as a political preemption to stave off the then-growing city secession movement in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood neighborhoods, they were also as a genuine effort to improve the responsiveness of a government serving a populace of 3.7 million, which has grown by more than 437,700 people over the last ten years. At first glance, it would appear that NCs have given a platform for residents to speak out on local needs and concerns; according to the most recent tally, there are 89 neighborhood councils certified by the City of Los Angeles, with an average board of 20 people representing approximately 38-39,000 residents. However, a thorough review of LA’s grand experiment leaves an impression that neighborhood councils have been caught in the middle of competing political forces, and are now struggling with a hybrid identity as both grassroots volunteer groups and an appendage of municipal government.

Few people understand the dynamics of neighborhood councils more than Greg Nelson. Nelson was the architect of LA’s neighborhood council system, and shepherded the system as the general manager of the newly-established department of neighborhood empowerment (DONE) for its first five years. In a recent interview with the National University System Institute for Policy Research, an organization in which I serve as Co-Chairman of the Advisory Board, Nelson identified the original intention of neighborhood council advocates to have NCs be as independent as possible from City Hall, with DONE principally helping them achieve that status. The early notification system was also to give residents a 30- to 45-day prior awareness to policy changes at City Hall, allowing neighborhood councils and their sub-committees to thoughtfully review and debate pertinent issues. All of this however was later changed by political forces at City Hall.

Shortly after the passage of Measure 1, the City Council and City Attorney identified neighborhood councils as government-created agencies, and as a result, they were required to follow the same gamut of state laws that have rendered City Hall slothful, bureaucratic, and unresponsive. Rather than serve as a true enabler of community power, DONE has instead become a dispenser of byzantine bureaucracy and legal obligations for citizen activists, instructing them on all the laws and practices they must follow. Neighborhood council board members are now expected to understand and adhere to the state Brown Act, which mandates a strict code for legislative bodies to follow when holding meetings, as well as the California Public Records Act, decrees from the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the American with Disabilities Act, and local laws that “public officials” must follow. Failing to do so could result in legal and financial consequences, and even decertification by the City.
Though few would disagree with the need for community organizations to be as open, honest, and transparent as possible, the effect of these regulations is that they have sandbagged NCs, and sapped their ability to be the fleet-footed, responsive apparatus that can advance the agenda of citizens, rather than the interests of government.

Early on, NCs had in fact scored victories for their residents, rolling back a key revision to the city’s burglar alarm response policy, as well as an 18% water and power rate increase. City Hall recognized the power of neighborhood councils to be “obstructionists” to approving controversial legislation, and begun taking steps to preserve the status quo. If neighborhood councils became the new “gatekeepers” for political resources and decision-making in Los Angeles, they would undercut the power of elected officials.

As a result, the local government marginalized the neighborhood councils, and the intent of Measure 1 became ineffectual. Hostile elected representatives and city officials have reduced the early notification system to a mere 72 hours, and have pressed for even more layers of regulation to saddle neighborhood councils, leaving them as impotent as City Hall itself to effectuate change and deliver quick action on behalf of constituents.

Adopting the LA neighborhood council model in San Diego may be appealing to some, but because of its failures, it is unlikely to cause much excitement. Today, more than 53 town councils, neighborhood councils, and community associations exist in the City of San Diego, all with varying measures of organization development, leadership effectiveness, and political influence at City Hall. Though San Diego’s town councils are unequal amongst themselves, and lack the government assistance and recognition that Los Angeles gives its neighborhood groups, they are also free from public encumbrances that would stifle their capacity for future growth and power. San Diego’s town councils may only be advisory, but there is no public outcry for unnecessary bureaucracy and belittlement from City Hall.

San Diego is growing larger each decade; our city is expected to increase in population by more than 300,000 over the next twenty years. As we look towards ways to improving the responsiveness of our local government, we should be sure to reject LA’s neighborhood council model. It’s important to note that simply creating a neighborhood group doesn’t automatically endow citizens with power and influence, no matter what city they live in. As Greg Nelson noted, “power isn’t given, it’s taken.” Although it’s unlikely that elected officials and government managers would want town councils to be effective, it’s important for every town council must learn how to become an effective lobbyist at City Hall, and unite their constituents.

San Diego’s community groups must learn from LA’s experience and failures, and focus instead on the fundamentals – establishing diverse working relationships in their own neighborhoods and at City Hall. Town council leaders must learn the ability to engage elected officials, even if they disagree with them. Nelson points to the universal need for leadership training in the neighborhood councils, which should be addressed in San Diego as town councils consider their future in our community.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, “a government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.” Town councils should take pride in their independence from City Hall, and never abandon their core mission to speak out for those who have no voice. To serve the needs of their constituents, town councils must be entrusted to grow at their own pace, on their own terms, and seek out their own future.