By Gary Walker
A member of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa wants to change the way the body’s members are elected by abandoning at-large contests and replacing them with races according to geographic zones.
Council Vice President Mark Redick says tying seats to voters in 15 sub-districts would ensure that residents have more say at the ballot box about how they’re represented and would limit the potential influence of special interest groups, particularly those backed by voters who don’t live in the area but show up to support candidates tied to specific and sometimes regional causes.
His proposal comes a month after Los Angeles City Council members voted to tighten voter eligibility rules in all 95 neighborhood councils by replacing the “factual basis stakeholder” eligibility with a “community stakeholder” definition. Factual basis voting was controversial because the criteria were seen by many very tenuous. The new regulations would restrict participation in elections to voters who have a “substantial and ongoing” status in a particular community, such as a religious organization or a school.
“This helps to eliminate the ‘receipt voter’ or the occasional voter,” said Gracyie Liu, general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees the operation of neighborhood councils.
But even before the rule change, councils have been able to designate certain voters for certain seats to avoid domination by particular interest groups, she said.
Out of 31 total seats on the Westchester-Playa council, three are reserved for business directors, one is dedicated for income property holders and one each goes for senior citizens, community organizations, youth organizations, religious organizations, service clubs, education institutions, Los Angeles International Airport and Loyola Marymount University. The rest are at-large.
Westchester-Playa’s bylaws do not allow for voting by zone or district, however, and city regulations would not permit such a change until next year.
Redick, who earlier this year proposed eliminating seats for businesses and organizations, said the switch to districts would compliment the new voter rules supported by the Los Angeles City Council.
“We had the factual basis voter, which was actually factual fraud and bastardized the spirit and the intent of the neighborhood council system. Now we have the opportunity to live up to that spirit by allowing board members to be elected by their duly eligible stakeholders,” he said. “This council should not be run as an adjunct of the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce.”
Not everyone’s on board with Redick’s assessment.
Westchester-Playa council President Cyndi Hench said Redick’s plan for switching to sub-district elections would unfairly disenfranchise one group to benefit another — shifting the balance of power very strongly in favor of residential stakeholders by muting the voices of everyone else.
“Our bylaws were written to ensure inclusion of all kinds of stakeholders. There are about equal number of seats that require that you live in the district and those that do not,” Hench said.
“Board members are not elected to represent only a particular part of the community. They are on the board to represent the entire community, and the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa bylaws reflect that in the [current] voting rules,” Hench said. “Everyone gets to weigh in, and that is more inclusive and more in line with the vision and spirit of what neighborhood councils are meant to be.”
Others suggest there may be middle ground in the debate over at-large seats versus those elected by sub-district.
The Mar Vista Community Council has found a successful balance by maintaining an even split between the two types of seats, said council First Vice President Bill Koontz.
“I like the fact that we have an even mix of both systems,” Koontz said. “About half of the directors are directly voted in by their neighbors to represent them and their needs, while the other almost-half are at large and may be elected by anyone.”