Since their creation during the Los Angeles City Charter amendment process over a decade ago, neighborhood councils have made great strides in gaining increased influence in creating a forum for dialogue on some of the city’s most pressing matters, including homelessness, budget items and land use matters.
As volunteers, board members’ work and observations on critical local topics give their respective City Council representatives an important, ground level perspective in real time on what is important to the constituents of their council districts.
But a recent series of events have motivated a subset of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the city agency that supervises the 95 neighborhood councils to ask the Los Angeles City Council for earlier notification on projects and initiatives that could affect the lives of their constituents.
The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) sent a letter to the City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Jan. 22, which includes asking Villaraigosa for an executive order that would require city departments to appoint a neighborhood council liaison to alert them.
“We need an early warning system on important issues for neighborhood councils,” said BONC Commissioner Linda Lucks.
A recent action by Councilman Mitchell Englander is Exhibit A for the appeal for prior notification on council plans and initiatives. Early this month, Englander proposed a $3-million bond measure that would hike property taxes over a 20-year period, generating revenue in order to repair the city’s crumbling infrastructure, primarily its streets and sidewalks.
Seven councilmen signed a proposal to draft a measure for the March 5 municipal ballot, but the measure quickly ran into trouble when critics accused them of attempting to sidestep the public by not being more open about the tax plan.
“That is a perfect example why we need an early notification system,” Lucks said. “This came about all of a sudden and the neighborhood councils – all of whom would have been impacted – were not given sufficient time to talk to our stakeholders about (the bond proposal).”
Mark Redick, vice president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, took issue with Englander’s bond measure and its lack of transparency to the city’s neighborhood councils.
“Any proposal that lacks a public outreach component is unacceptable,” he said.
The City Council decided to table the bond proposal Jan. 15 due to strong grassroots opposition.
“I agree that notification of measures – particularly tax measures – should be done far enough in advance so neighborhood councils can respond in detail,” said Mar Vista Community Council Chair Sharon Commins. “The example of the recent street repair bond measure is spot on.
“It is important to look at the language of a bond measure to see how the money will be specifically spent and if there will be any citizen oversight committee,” Commins added. “Neighborhood councils should be represented on citizen oversight committees.”
Another recent event was somewhat symptomatic to some of how evolving decisions at the council level can have an impact on a neighborhood board’s ability to notify their constituents on matters of citywide or local importance.
Several members of the Venice Neighborhood Council at their Jan. 22 meeting were upset about a plan by Rosendahl’s office to transport a container to Venice Beach that will serve as a storage locker for the homeless who are participating in a winter shelter program.
They criticized how “the process” was handled between Rosendahl’s office and the neighborhood board, with some citing knowledge of the plan for the container in November but that it did not appear on the local council’s agenda until this month.
Lucks thinks at times the City Council is selective with what it wants neighborhood councils to be aware of, which is not conducive to informing the public, she said.
“It appears to me that they sometimes cherry-pick the items, depending on the various neighborhoods that will be affected,” said Lucks, who is also the president of the Venice Neighborhood Council.
Over the last several years, neighborhood councils, which were created in 1999 during an updating of the city charter, have gained influence in their communities and have asserted their collective political will in citywide matters such as the municipal budget, homelessness, development, planning and how new ordinances, including the sign and mural laws, will be rewritten. Advocates of the local boards believe they have earned the right to ask for a system where they are given advanced notice on pending ordinances such as the soon-to-be-considered community care facilities ordinance and bond proposals.
“Neighborhood councils have earned the respect to be able to sit at the table of discussion,” asserted Redick, who also heads his council’s government affairs committee. “City officials ignore them at their own peril.”
Del Rey Neighborhood Council President Eric DeSobe also backs the commissioners’ request.
“I fully support BONC’s push to create a notice system between the City Council and neighborhood councils,” said DeSobe.”
DeSobe noted that Council District 11, which includes Del Rey, Mar Vista, Venice and Westchester, have a City Council representative who has always valued his local boards.
“The Westside neighborhood councils are fortunate to have Councilman Rosendahl who includes them early and often,” he said.
Rosendahl, who will retire from the council in June while he recovers from cancer of the ureter, has repeatedly called neighborhood councils the epitome of “grassroots democracy” and often appears at their board meetings. He frequently uses them as sounding boards for many of the most pressing and controversial topics in a particular community, such as development projects.
“I have always told developers before they meet with me they have to have their project vetted through my neighborhood councils,” Rosendahl has said on many occasions.
Lucks says an automated notification system would work well and the city should do its best to give local councils at least 90 days’ advanced warning whenever possible of ordinances, tax measures and other citywide initiatives.