When the Los Angeles neighborhood council system was created 12 years ago, special emphasis was given to the term “stakeholder.” While the word has several interpretations, it takes on special meaning when it applies to who can vote for candidates in a local council election.
The definition is coming under greater scrutiny now that the Los Angeles city clerk will be in charge of the neighborhood council elections for the first time next month. Under the rules crafted by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), the agency that conducted neighborhood council elections in the past, a voting stakeholder can be anyone who lives, owns property in or works in a specific neighborhood.
But some neighborhood leaders are concerned now that the right to vote in an election for the advisory boards has been extended to what is known as a “factual basis stakeholder.”
These de facto-interested parties could vote in an election without living or working in a particular community, as long as the voter can “affirm” an interest or stake in any action on which a local council might allow a vote.
Mark Redick, president of the Del Rey Neighborhood Council, says he agrees with those who live, own property or work in a neighborhood having the right to elect a community council. But he objects to what he feels are residents from other cities or communities having the right to vote in his or another local neighborhood’s election.
“I don’t think that someone from Pasadena should have the right to influence Del Rey elections,” said Redick, who chose not to run for a third term in April.
Venice saw firsthand how problems with defining who has the right to vote in a neighborhood council election can escalate into a public clash among neighbors. In February 2008, a group of residents challenged the veracity of the vote to support or reject the local council’s position on establishing overnight parking districts.
Opponents of the initiative who contend that parking districts discriminate against the homeless complained after the election that a variety of irregularities had occurred, including allowing non-stakeholders the opportunity to vote.
“Throughout the entire election held by the Venice Neighborhood Council, there was massive voter confusion over what the ballot meant and what people were voting on,” resident Mark Lippman alleged.
Representatives of the city clerk’s office say they are aware of the dilemma that some neighborhood councils will be facing, but the issue of who can and cannot vote in an election is largely out of their hands.
“The stakeholder definition was created by the City Council,” Maria García, a spokeswoman for the city clerk, said. “The city attorney’s office has instructed us that anyone who can stake a claim to a neighborhood is allowed to vote.”
The City Council decided to expand the definition of who is allowed to vote in neighborhood elections last year, to the dismay of many Westside councils.
Cyndi Hench, president of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, said that the factual basis designation was forced upon the local councils against their will.
“Our council would prefer not to have an outsider on our board,” she said. “Our preference is to have a clearly defined definition of a stakeholder, which is anyone who works, lives or owns property within our council boundaries.”
As it currently stands, anyone who flies into Los Angeles International Airport or occasionally has a cup of coffee at Tanner’s Coffee Co. in Playa del Rey could stake a claim and vote in the April election, Hench said.
Marc Saltzberg said the Venice Neighborhood Council was also opposed to the new designation. A Venice council community officer, Saltzberg says the factual stakeholder definition is very subjective and can be viewed in two separate ways.
“A customer at the Venice Farmers Market could argue that a decision by the local council to stop selling a certain product would be materially affected by their decision,” he said. “On the other hand, I would suggest that argument does not appear anywhere else in government (regarding who has the right to vote) and not in any other election.”
The city clerk’s office said that as long as a person could display an interest in the community where they are voting, Hench’s and Saltzburg’s examples are essentially correct.
“It could be someone who commutes through a neighborhood or shops at a local store,” García confirmed.
Each neighborhood council sets its own standards through its bylaws regarding what type of proof is needed, if any, for a factual basis stakeholder to be able to vote.
Rob Kadota, a former chair of the Mar Vista Community Council, said the City Council-imposed designation was a topic of intense debate in Mar Vista.
“One of the reasons why we only have one position on the board that fits that designation and the reason for our revision of our bylaws for the last election was due to the (City Council edict,)” said Kadota. “We do have a candidate running for the position and I think actually it’s probably a perfect example of why the city required this change.”
Kadota said Alex Thompson, who does not live or work in Mar Vista, is actively involved in a store called BikerOWave, a “do-it-yourself” bike shop run by volunteers.
“Alex has helped run this venture for a number of years but since it’s run by volunteers, it isn’t paid so he doesn’t ‘work’ in Mar Vista,” Kadota explained.
BongHawn Kim, the general manager of DONE, said having as many people as possible vote is one of the cornerstones of grassroots democracy.
“I subscribe to the vision that neighborhood councils should be as inclusive as possible,” Kim told The Argonaut. “Getting more people involved seems to be more of a problem than determining who can get involved.”
Kadota cited another example of how the factual basis stakeholder designation could be a benefit or liability.
“We’ve previously had a candidate, Frank Harris, the president of the Ocean View Farms Community Garden, consider running for the board. There was much debate about whether Frank could rightfully claim he worked in Mar Vista since his extensive volunteer position, while in Mar Vista, was unpaid and therefore not a job,” Kadota said. “In my opinion, Frank would be a perfect board member. He’s given and continues to give much to the Mar Vista community — often more than officially elected board members.
“The city, I believe has remained intentionally ambiguous on defining the term ‘work.’”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl believes the issue of who should be able to serve on a neighborhood council and vote for the advisory boards should be limited to those residents who live in the community that the council represents.
“I believe the definition of a stakeholder is too vague and too loose,” the councilman said.
Kadota agrees with Kim’s assessment of including as many voters as possible in elections.
“I personally am supportive of neighborhood councils being as open as possible, but the issue of being afraid of being taken over by outsiders has been around for a long time,” he noted. “Of course there is a need for balance, and I think allowing at least one position is a start.”
The former Mar Vista chair mentioned a situation that occurred during the community council’s first election six years ago.
“There was a church in Mar Vista that appeared to try to stack the deck with lots of candidates from their congregation,” he recalled. “No one from that group was elected and they never seemed to ever get involved in any (council) activities.”
García said the city has given its election employees and volunteers in depth instruction on how to administer the election procedures, including an overview of each advisory council’s policies and bylaws that govern voting and the requirements for a factual basis voter.
“Everyone has been given comprehensive training that involves, in particular, which stakeholders can vote, along with the neighborhood council election procedures,” she said.
Potential factual basis voters will be required to sign a form where they declare, under penalty of perjury, that they have an affirmed stake or interest in the community where they will be voting.
Nevertheless, council leaders like Hench believe that the creation of the factual basis stakeholder was indicative of a lack of respect for the grassroots councils,
“This shows that decisions made by the City Council are not supportive of the neighborhood councils,” Hench said.