Nearly seven years after their creation by a new Los Angeles City Charter, local grass-roots Neighborhood Councils will now be able to propose legislation that has the potential to have a direct effect on land use, recreation and economic development decisions.
The unanimous vote by the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday, January 15th, approved a two-year pilot program that will grant the 89 certified Neighborhood Councils greater input into shaping public policy by permitting them to initiate a motion and “open a council file” if their ideas are approved. By opening such a file, any project or motion could then be tracked as it winds its way through numerous city departments and committees on its way to possible passage.
But the caveat is that now, along with this new privilege, members of the local councils would be required to disclose their financial interests and any potential conflicts of interests that they might have, as all public officeholders in California are required to do.
While some members of these advisory Neighborhood Councils greeted this action as a positive step, it was received with mixed reviews by many supporters of Westside councils, who have advocated for more direct power on decisions that affect their neighborhoods.
“I’m pleased that the motion passed,” said Rob Kadota, president of the Mar Vista Community Council. “But I have a mixed reaction about the ‘700 disclosure form’.”
The state Form 700 Statement of Economic Interests is a financial disclosure that is filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state entity that enforces political campaigning, lobbying and conflict of interest laws.
Others feel that the prerequisite of filing the Statement of Economic Interests could have disastrous consequences for local Neighborhood Councils.
“It think that it’s a lose-lose for Neighborhood Councils and for grass-roots democracy,” stated Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council. “The actions of the City Council regarding this issue are both demagogic and hypocritical.”
Because Neighborhood Councils function in an advisory capacity, their responsibilities are not the same as the City Council’s, Redick pointed out, and the level of disclosure should be different.
“I ran for neighborhood councilman, not Los Angeles city councilman,” he said. “I got involved as a concerned citizen because I felt that our community was going adrift in a way that I and many others in Del Rey did not like.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the Westside 11th Council District, has been an outspoken advocate for granting Neighborhood Councils the ability to open a council file and follow it through its various committees.
“I have been very supportive of council files since the very beginning,” the councilman told The Argonaut a few days after the vote. “It’s a no-brainer to give them the opportunity to interact with the issues that greatly concern them.”
Rosendahl said he realizes that there will be those who do not agree with the council’s condition regarding financial declaration, but he feels that it is a necessary part of being able to participate in policy-making decisions.
“It’s the responsibility aspect of these duties, and it’s the reality of the process,” he explained. “It’s a requirement for all of us, including elected officials that have to run for elective office.”
Some business groups have opposed the City Council’s idea to give Neighborhood Councils more direct involvement in crafting certain initiatives. The LAX Coastal Area Chamber of Commerce does not feel that the ability to open a council file is a real necessity.
“Neighborhood Councils are by design a strictly advisory group to give input on issues of local interest to the councilperson representing their area,” wrote John Theuer, the chamber’s chairman of the board in an e-mail. “In our case, we do not really see the need for direct filing because, whether he may choose to agree or not, Councilman Rosendahl has always been attentive to the opinions of the Neighborhood Council, the chamber and other local organizations.”
In order to be eligible to recommend policy proposals, three Neighborhood Councils would be required to support the item that is being suggested.
Redick feels that this provision could cause those who are currently serving or may wish to join their local boards in the future to reconsider because of this mandatory financial disclosure feature. He cited the possibility that some board members might not agree with allowing their personal financial information to become a matter of public record, including real estate holdings and business clients.
“This could force some of us to resign, which could result in a loss of a quorum,” said Redick. “If we don’t have enough people participating, the Neighborhood Council could even face decertification,” he added.
A quorum is defined as the minimum number of members of a deliberative body necessary to conduct the business of the group. Typically, it can be a majority of the body, but smaller groups may have a higher or lower requirement.
Mike Newhouse, the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council, is in favor of having the opportunity to have a stronger influence in public policy decisions.
“I think it’s a fantastic tool for neighborhood councils to be able to use,” Newhouse said.
He doesn’t think that the need to open a council file will occur very often with his local board.
“We have a very good working relationship with Councilman Rosendahl,” he said.
Like Theuer, Newhouse said that the councilman has been very attentive to the needs of his constituents.
Rosendahl “has always been very supportive of the issues that are important to Venice residents,” said the Venice Neighborhood Council president.
Denny Schneider, a member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa del Rey, agrees with Newhouse that permitting local councils to track proposals can be a plus.
“I think that it’s a good thing, because in the past when Neighborhood Councils made suggestions, they could be ignored without any consequences,” Schneider said. “Now, when three councils get together and decide that there is something that they want to propose, the City Council has to pay attention to them.”
Last year, the City Council rejected a recommendation by the Neighborhood Council Review Commission, an independent commission of 29 volunteers who were appointed by the mayor and City Council, to permit Neighborhood Councils to file appeals to land use decisions, a recommendation that appealed to Sharon Commins of the Mar Vista council.
“Right now, only neighborhood associations or an individual citizen can appeal a planning decision,” she explained. “Neighborhood Councils should also have that power.”
In a previous interview, Rosendahl said that while he strongly backed Neighborhood Councils gaining more input in land use policy decisions and opening council files, because of the makeup of some local advisory councils, he was not in favor of voting to grant them more decision making authority unless they were elected in a democratic fashion by members of the neighborhood where they live.
“There are people who sit on some of these boards who do not live in the community, and were not elected by the people of the community,” Rosendahl noted, referring to what are known as at-large appointments of people who own property in the neighborhood or are affiliated with commercial interests and who occupy seats on some local councils. “The only way that I would grant them more power is if they are duly elected through the voters, like I am.”
Schneider, a longtime Westchester community activist who frequently speaks publicly about transportation and matters surrounding Los Angeles International Airport, says that he was one of the first members of a Neighborhood Council to agree to fill out the state financial disclosure form when he joined six years ago.
“If you want to have more say in policy decisions, I think that it’s appropriate for members of Neighborhood Councils to sign 700 forms,” he said.
There have been accusations that some board members of certain local councils have ties to developers or represent organizations or companies that are doing business with the city and have not disclosed this information, which would be a conflict of interest.
“People with certain biases should be visible to the community,” said Schneider.
Redick, the Del Rey Neighborhood Council president, feels that his local board is representative of the neighborhood and displays a broad cross-section of groups that have a vested interest in obtaining the best projects and benefits for the Del Rey community.
“The yardstick that we follow is, if it’s good fit for Del Rey, then it’s a good fit for all of the stakeholders,” Redick said. “Del Rey is a good case in point of practicing democracy at a grass-roots level, and our board is made up of small business leaders and community members who want to serve their community.”
Redick said that signing a Statement of Economic Interests form was unnecessary for a volunteer board that believes in conducting business in an ethical manner.
“I don’t need a post-Watergate set of rules to tell me how to follow the law,” Redick asserted.
Newhouse, who is an attorney, would prefer that the conflict of interest provision not be a part of the motion to allow Neighborhood Councils more direct involvement in shaping public policy, but he said that in the long run it wasn’t that significant.
“It would be better if it wasn’t there, but it’s not the end of the world,” Newhouse said. The mandate that would require three Neighborhood Councils to petition the City Council for a project or proposal could allow them to forge stronger bonds with each other, said Newhouse.
“This could be a good thing as far as working together and combining our efforts on local and regional issues,” he pointed out.
Because he opposes the statement of financial interest so vehemently, Redick said that at the next board meeting he would submit a motion opposing the requirement for financial disclosure and would ask other Neighborhood Councils to join him in rejecting the condition on submitting conflict of interest informa- tion.
“This is a demagogic and hypocritical action by the City Council, and if the motion passes, I will ask other councils to join us in opposing this [requirement],” he reiterated. “This proposal has the potential to cripple grass-roots democracy.
“Hopefully, the council will look at this again and reconsider [the financial disclosure provision].”
Rosendahl remained steadfast in his belief that the Form 700 requirement is a necessary part of the evolution of Neighborhood Councils toward gaining added legislative authority.
“While I enjoy great relationships with all of my Neighborhood Councils, [financial disclosure] is a reality that all of us in the political process have to deal with,” the councilman said.
“Welcome to the club.”