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"Neighborhood Councils 2.0"

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, March 24, 2005, at 06:28PM
Hahn Shaking Hands Eric Richardson [Flickr]

This afternoon I rushed from USC up to North Hollywood to attend a Jim Hahn event talking about neighborhood councils. The press were there in decent force, so I'm sure you'll have a chance to review snippets on the evening news tonight. I like a lot of what Hahn's promising for neighborhood councils, but I do wonder if they're evolving toward fulfillment of a role they were designed for. As one gentleman said at the meeting (and I paraphrase due to bad memory), "I feel like all this might be a little above my pay grade."

The first part ran just as you would expect of an election-time press junket. There were twenty to twenty-five neighborhood council representatives present from across the city, all packed into a living room and adjoining dining room. When Hahn arrived around 2:20pm the media descended into the already crowded interior. There were three or so nice big Betacam SP rigs, a couple radio guys with just mics, and the one girl from Annenberg TV News with a little Sony Mini-DV camcorder.

Hahn started by passing around sheets titled "The Hahn Plan: More Power for Neighborhood Councils." Basically he promises NC reps on every city commission, involvement in general manager selections, performance reviews, etc. He talked on his plan for ten minutes or so, and then opened the floor up for comments and questions. As you might expect in a room full of neighborhood council leaders, most of these centered on councilmembers wanting more say in the process, especially when it comes to planning. The valley brought up big box stores, while representatives from south LA brought up the preponderance of liquor stores. I appreciated that Mayor Hahn did not simply agree with all the concerns brought up. Sure he empathized with their concerns and reiterated his desire for councils to work with the planning department, but he also detailed the specific plans developed for the areas in question and the work that went into them.

Then the mayor opened the floor for a few minutes of questions from the reporters (Again paraphrasing, "I'm told that if I answer your questions, the room might open up some."). Most of these centered around endorsements, particularly Maxine Waters endorsement of Antonio. An interesting exchange:

  • Reporter: Maxine Waters says that one of the main reasons she went for Antonio was that you never called her.
  • Hahn: That's not true.
  • Reporter: Did you call Rep. Waters?
  • Hahn: Many times.
  • Reporter: She says you didn't.
  • Hahn: That's incorrect.

Then, finally, the reporters left and we got to spend another twenty minutes or so talking about neighborhood council issues.

As I mentioned above the jump, my concern with all this talk of new power to be given to neighborhood councils is that the system is not ready to handle the extra responsibility. Kevin Roderick addresses the issue in his post on Hahn's comments:

It also could be fascinating to watch what happens as neighborhood councils become a more influential part of the City Hall politics machinery, but outside the usual disclosure and clean-government rules. With real power at stake, and utterly no oversight from the media, it wouldn't be a surprise to me if the relatively harmless election snafus and hyper-local feuds at some councils turn into bigger shenanigans involving conflicts of interest, secret agendas and hidden payments (you know, grass roots democracy.)

I don't as much share Kevin's concern about back-room dealings and ethical violations. I think that neighborhood councils must address ethics in their own context, and it may be that more City Council-like disclosure rules need be applied across the city.

I also don't share as much his concern about a lack of oversight from the media. Whose fault is that? If the councils get power, the media better show up and report on what's going on. Stakeholders better start getting their ears perked to hear what's being talked about and voted on.

What does concern me is that I feel we could soon see the neighborhood councils become just another arm of city government that's only accessible to those who are willing to pour their time into it. With added responsibility comes an added commitment of time, both for meetings and for training in order to be educated enough to effectively rule on the issues. As these requirements rise, the bar to entry gets higher and more stakeholders become unable to participate in the process.

This is an issue that definitely needs more thought to be put into it.

Kevin's last line is interesting:

Prediction: Once L.A. decides whether to elect a Latino mayor, neighborhood councils become the next big local political story.

Maybe, but I can tell you that sure don't care now. None of the media questions today were about neighborhood councils. After the press left Mayor Hahn commented on this, talking about how this was the biggest revolution in government this city's seen, and the media doesn't even care. I'll be a bit surprised to see that change.

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