Backyard Politics, Big Contests
More than 120 candidates — most of them newcomers — add drama to neighborhood council elections
By Gary Walker
Of the 96 neighborhood councils in Los Angeles, Venice is typically among those fielding the greatest number of candidates for biennial elections.
But this year they’ve outdone themselves.
There are 69 candidates currently running for 21 Venice Neighborhood Council seats up for grabs on June 5.
The mix of 14 current council members and 55 newcomers — including activists, architects, a tech entrepreneur, a marketing strategist, a personal trainer and a registered nurse — could dramatically reshape the board and suggests growing interest in hyperlocal politics.
Candidate interest went “way beyond my expectations,” said Michael Lynn, the neighborhood council elections manager for Del Rey and Venice. “We did a very thorough outreach for candidates and we’re very happy with it. It seems like residents of Venice are more passionate than a lot of areas of Los Angeles.”
By comparison, there are 57 candidates running for a combined total of 43 available seats in the June elections for the Del Rey, Westchester-Playa and Mar Vista neighborhood councils. Those who win seats keep them for a two-year term.
Though their powers are largely advisory, neighborhood councils are often the first realm of public engagement on matters of local concern and can influence how city officials approach local issues.
As was the case in 2014, each of the councils has its own parochial considerations that could impact voter interest, but experts say outreach is as important to voter turnout in local elections as location is to real estate transactions.
“Outreach is a program that you do that the community cares about. They have to believe that the neighborhood council is looking out for their interests,” said Tony Wilkinson, a former independent elections administrator for the West Los Angeles Region. “You need to work on it year-round to keep people engaged.”
Fresh Faces for Del Rey
Exponentially smaller and much quieter than Venice, Del Rey has less election drama — just three of the 15 available seats are contested, and two seats failed to attract any candidates (likely resulting in appointments) — but 75% of candidates would be newcomers to the board if elected.
Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Jonathon Neumann and Vice President Marlene Savage are not running for reelection, which leaves only four incumbents up for reelection, and only one of them with more than two years of experience.
“There are fewer hot button issues in Del Rey, so when things are quiet people tend to stay on the sidelines,” said Lynn.
Areas of Del Rey south of Ballona Creek are, however, grappling with sudden parking scarcity due to the growth of Playa Vista, and the neighborhood council is seeking approval for preferential parking protections. Development projects in nearby Culver City and the redevelopment of the Mesmer Triangle (near Jefferson and the 405) are also hot topics.
Mild Interest in Mar Vista
At a March 30 meeting of its outreach committee, the Mar Vista Community Council acknowledged its unimpressive turnout for the 2014 election: just 215 voters, compared to more than 1,500 that year in neighboring Venice.
The committee debated how to improve its “poor outreach and engagement to renters, even though we are 60% renters and can identify longtime and active community members who are renters,” the meeting agenda stated.
One way is to get people to run for office: “The more candidates that you have,” said Lynn, “the more people you have doing outreach for the elections.”
And that could impact turnout this year. There are 20 people, only seven of them board incumbents, running for 12 available seats. Four contests are two-way races, another is a four-way race, and there are eight hopefuls for six at-large seats.
Westchester-Playa Heats Up
The Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa (including both Playa del Rey and Playa Vista) had a dismal turnout of just 214 voters in 2012, but voter turnout picked up in 2014 after a concentrated outreach effort.
After seeking advice from longtime Venice Neighborhood Council parliamentarian Ivan Spiegel, Westchester-Playa Vice President Mark Redick held candidate forums and circulated flyers to draw community attention to the polls.
Voter turnout for the 2014 election increased more than fivefold to 1,135, trailing Venice’s voter turnout that year by only about 400 voters.
“When you’re recruiting candidates, you recruit candidates who want to be there. And these candidates bring their own voters. When you have different candidates campaigning, it’s almost like multi-level marketing,” Redick said.
Like in Venice, the rapid proliferation of short-term vacation rentals has become a hot issue in lower Playa del Rey and could draw voters to the polls this year in large numbers. Two neighborhood groups have already organized around the issue, one of them generally supportive of short-term rentals and the other calling for tighter restrictions.
Most prior Westchester-Playa elections have seen few contested races, but this year there are 21 candidates vying for 16 available seats. There are three two-way races — one of them specifically representing lower Playa del Rey, where the short-term rental issue looms large — and a four-way race for Community Interest Director.
Record Turnout in Venice?
If contested races draw higher voter turnouts, Venice can expect another banner year. Only one seat is uncontested, and an at-large contest for 13 community officer seats involves a crush of 46 hopefuls.
And with council incumbents accounting for only 20% of candidates, there’s likely to be a lot of turnover this year.
Venice Neighborhood Council President Mike Newhouse, who is not seeking reelection, said he isn’t surprised by the large number of competitive races.
“In many ways Venice is at a crossroads. There are very strong and divergent opinions on what Venice will be and should look like, and it’s much more intense than it was in the past,” Newhouse said.
Venice has become the Westside’s ground zero for battles about housing density and affordability, including the push to tax and regulate short-term vacation rentals. Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin’s recent proposals for addressing rampant homelessness — including allowing homeless people to store belongings at the Westminster Senior Center — are also stirring local debate.
Desire to have a greater say in the amount and type of city services that Venice receives is fueling discussion of whether Venice should try to secede from Los Angeles altogether, a topic that recently came up in a Venice Neighborhood Council committee meeting.
Venice community activist Nick Antonicello, a critic of city government who is pushing for discussion of Venice cityhood, hopes where candidates stand on the matter will become something of an election issue.
“For the most part these elections are popularity contests driven by candidates who are able to turn out their friends, family and neighbors more than anything else,” Antonicello said. But
“I do believe it will be a serious discussion for the first time when the new board is seated.”
With Venice already a hotbed for local politics and departures of longtime neighborhood council members opening doors for newcomers, Lynn believes the stage may be set for one of the busiest elections since the creation of neighborhood councils 15 years ago — maybe even a record turnout in Venice.
“I think there’s a very good chance that could happen. There’s a lot of excitement around the election in Venice,” he said. “All things being equal, I think that this will be a record year in terms of the number of stakeholders who vote.”