An attempt to allow voters who do not live or own property in Del Rey the right to influence who may sit on the local council was tabled after objections were raised by the former chair of a neighboring governing board.
Brett Flater, treasurer of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, proposed the motion at the Thursday, Oct. 14 meeting, which sought to give the local council the ability to determine who can take part in the advisory board’s elections.
“It’s a resolution that promotes our desire for citizen participation, to define for ourselves who a stakeholder is, and oppose anyone imposing on us a mandated removal of the factual basis definition,” the treasurer explained.
In 2008, the Los Angeles City Council expanded the definition of the “factual basis” or “affirmation“ stakeholder. Such potential voters are not required to live, work or own property in the area where they wish to vote. As long as they can “affirm” an interest in a particular neighborhood council, they are permitted to cast ballots in that local board’s elections.
Currently, all Westside neighborhood councils have one seat that can be occupied by someone who does not meet the mandated qualifications of a voter in the city charter. Westchester-Playa, Venice and Mar Vista councils have expressed strong reservations on having a factual basis stakeholder seat.
The Del Rey resolution sought to oppose what was referred to as any “top down mandated, arbitrary number of seats that factual basis stakeholders may vote for and/or run for.” In addition, the resolution listed its opposition to the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which supervises the 91 neighborhood councils , or the city Board of Neighborhood Councils (BONC) “imposing restrictions on stakeholder definitions.”
According to the proposal, another reason for the resolution was to “affirm Del Rey’s desire to promote more citizen involvement in government and make government more responsive to local needs of Del Rey stakeholders.”
DONE General Manager BongHwan Kim said adding seats to a neighborhood council board would require a change to its bylaws.
“BONC has the final decision on whether a board can change its bylaws,” Kim told The Argonaut.
Asked if the council had petitioned to change the bylaws, Kim responded, “No one has contacted us.”
Jay Handal, the former chair of the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, said neighborhood councils were asked to give their opinions on DONE’s Web site regarding their feelings on keeping or modifying the factual basis definition.
“Overwhelmingly, the need to change the definition of factual basis is there for citywide neighborhood councils,” Handal told the Del Rey board.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Del Rey, has expressed his opposition to the affirmation stakeholder on many occasions.
“I’ve always been skeptical of the definition and I still am,” the councilman said. “This kind of thing is anticipated when you have a definition that is so vague.”
Rosendahl has previously stated his views on multiple occasions whom he thinks should be able to vote in local elections.
“I think it should be limited to those residents who live in the community that the council represents,” he reiterated.
Handal said he recognized that one of the reasons for the creation of the local councils was to have more direct citizen participation, but expanding voting rights to those with a tenuous interest in a specific neighborhood could become tricky.
“It’s a delicate balance,” he acknowledged. “You have people who have children in schools but live in a different area and people with various other capacities that want representation.”
Sherry Curreri is a Venice resident but her two sons attend Braddock Elementary Magnet School. While she would like to retain the option to address the Del Rey council on matters that might take place at the school, she doesn’t feel that right should extend to voting.
“I would like to be able to give my opinion on anything related to schools,” Curreri, a journalist, said. “But I don’t think that I should have a say on any other neighborhood concerns. Outsiders shouldn’t have the right to vote because they usually have their own agenda.”
Handal said it was a misnomer that neighborhood councils are largely being taken over by what he called the “Starbucks” type of voter — someone who essentially purchases a beverage at the popular coffeehouse and then asserts an interest in a specific neighborhood.
But he argued that the potential for such an occurrence exists.
Handal related a story about a church in his neighborhood that had its membership vote in an election in West Los Angeles.
“They took everyone from church, since the election was on a Sunday, and voted. And they took over the entire neighborhood council,” the former West Los Angeles council chair recalled. “They preceded to vote themselves for what they wanted and then disappeared, and it was no longer a neighborhood council.”
Rosendahl referenced a controversial incident in 2004 when Playa Capital transported dozens of its employees to voting precincts, which many believe altered that election.
While he now believes the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa is not controlled by outside interests, Rosendahl feels that incident five years ago cast a shadow over the neighborhood board.
“What they did was the developer put together (an election slate) and then bussed in workers to vote,” the councilman, who was elected to the City Council the following year, recalled. “The developer wanted control over the council and I thought that was offensive and an abuse.”
Kim said his office has heard complaints regarding the factual basis seat since it was approved by the City Council.
“It’s been an ongoing issue with some of the local boards,” he explained. “BONC has looked into this and we haven’t really found unanimous consensus one way or the other.”
Handal said neighborhood councils should be wary of developers or any other interests that might seek to influence the advisory boards, which are gaining increasing clout throughout the city.
“I would urge you to take a good, hard look at what you’re voting on tonight,” he cautioned the board. “It’s definitely there when you have all seats open to anybody voting for anything.”
Second Vice President Thomas Kielty, who argued in favor of voting on Flater’s motion, had a different view.
“Part of local government is that we get to decide how we do things,” he asserted. “We don’t have to be cowed by what someone else is thinking or how somebody might shake their head about what bad things might happen.”
Kielty, who was elected to the board in April, said there are ways that even community members could abuse the electoral process. “My thought is this is working. If it ain’t broke, let’s not try to fix it,” he said.
Council President Eric DeSobe thinks there are people other than local residents and property owners who have legitimate interests in Del Rey and should be given an opportunity to vote.
“There is the argument that one (factual basis) seat is not sufficient,” he said, arguing that there are organizations in Del Rey for which the local council advocates. “Our neighborhood council potentially has several seats perhaps for a ‘factual basis’ stakeholder. I don’t feel that one is sufficient.”
Following discussion, the board then voted to table the resolution.
Board member Gerry Crouse found it troubling that the council would consider expanding the definition when the City Council is set to discuss the matter next year, but also due to an election challenge in April that left some residents and former board members disillusioned. Charges of illegal voting by outsiders cast taint over the election, according to some residents like Crouse.
“I’m very much against them trying to give people from outside our area a vote,” he said. “Even Councilman Rosendahl has said he believes that only residents should be able to vote in neighborhood council elections.”
Ironically, Flater, the author of the motion, voted against having the board consider the proposed resolution.
“It’s good that this discussion is happening. I think it’s something that we need to think about how do we engage the community; how do we get ‘buy in’ from community members,” he said. “I think having it open ‘willy nilly’ is probably not the solution.’”
The resolution can still be brought before the local council at a later date.