Omar Said: Neighborhood councils are needed in LA despite backlash and criticism

Do we really need neighborhood councils?

These words were on the agenda every month when Jerry Brown was president of the Westwood Neighborhood Council.

Yes, every month. No, not Governor Jerry Brown.

Brown served as WWNC’s first president when the council was formed in 2010. He retired in 2016.

Those who know Brown know that although he was president, he always hated neighborhood councils. Lisa Chapman, the current president of WWNC who has also served on the board since 2010, said Brown has been against neighborhood councils since she knew him.

“(Brown) viewed things as black and white … and he didn’t believe in neighborhood councils very much,” Chapman said. “He didn’t think the compromise between the groups was as important as it is.”

Neighborhood councils are meant to be organizations that allow communities to express their voice. However, their designation as official city entities forces them to deal with bureaucracy and bureaucratic processes at every turn. This designation also makes them vulnerable to legal attack from anyone with time or money, threatening to undermine their already tenuous authority.

But as loud and boring as WWNC meetings can be, LA needs neighborhood councils. Neighborhood councils unify the city’s many diverse communities, providing a forum for groups that have historically remained separate from each other. They also give the community a voice – after all, not everyone has time to travel downtown to visit the Los Angeles City Council.

This may not be obvious given Angelenos’ exasperation with neighborhood councils.

It’s not just Brown who doesn’t like advice. Michael Skiles, president of the UCLA Graduate Student Association and a leading member of the Westwood Forward coalition, which is trying to create a new neighborhood council, said he thinks neighborhood councils aren’t enough. representative.

“Across the city of Los Angeles, ward council members have tended to become more landlords, wealthy people, and white people, with fewer tenants, people of color, people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds or young people,” Skiles said.

He added that he thinks the lack of diversity on neighborhood councils has caused them to reflect the opinions of the wealthy and make decisions that exclude people and stifle business.

It’s no surprise that Skiles feels this way. WWNC members have spent years disenfranchising students. In 2016, Sandy Brown, vice president of WWNC and president of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association, moved a motion to extend the term of council members to four years, which the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment rejected. This change would have prevented the majority of UCLA undergraduates from running for council seats.

The WWNC has also issued numerous rulings against the interests of students, even on issues that affect their ability to vote in council elections. The council’s polling place is more than a mile from campus, and voting is not yet available online, although 36 other Los Angeles ward councils used online voting in the 2016 elections.

Neighborhood councils were also opportunities for those already in power to maintain their authority. Greg Nelson, the first director of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and the person who came up with the idea of ​​introducing neighborhood councils in Los Angeles in 1992, said that Sandy Brown and HWPOA were notable opponents of the creation of WWNC in 2010. Brown now sits on that same board as vice president.

“Those who have power don’t like to share it,” Nelson said. “And (Sandy Brown) was so scared that eventually she would have to share power and influence and could no longer be the sole spokesperson for the people of Westwood.”

This is in addition to the fact that these tips come with a lot of legal baggage. After neighborhood councils began operating in the early 2000s, the city attorney discovered that Brown’s Law — a state law passed in 1953 to ensure transparency in local government — applied to neighborhood councils. piece. The law includes stipulations preventing council members from working together outside of ward council meetings, which deprives them of the ability to work together to lobby council members or spend time getting information correctly on the issues on which they must vote.

Nelson believes the Brown Law ruined the ability of neighborhood councils to succeed. He said the city attorney’s announcement in the early 2000s forced his department to stop teaching councils how to properly exercise political influence and instead focus on telling council members how to comply. to the Brown Law.

The law allowed members of the public to oppose ward council decisions on where to set up homeless shelters. This is despite the fact that Angelenos passed Measure H in 2017, giving the city millions of taxpayer dollars to provide housing for the homeless.

This all seems to point to the idea that LA should just get rid of neighborhood councils. In fact, Seattle disbanded its ward councils altogether in 2016 because it believed they were getting in the way of the city doing its job.

But the same strategy wouldn’t work here in Los Angeles. Neighborhood councils in Los Angeles were not a random choice. They were created as part of LA’s new city charter, which was passed in 1999 in an effort to end the San Fernando Valley’s attempt to secede from the city because its constituents felt that their needs were neglected by the town hall.

That’s the big picture: There are too many different people and groups in Los Angeles for it to function without a place for its communities to find compromise. The neighborhood tips we have aren’t great, but it’s better than nothing.

And there is still hope: neighborhood councils could easily be fixed by the city by passing a law that would exempt them from the Brown Law and help them do the job they were always meant to do. Nelson, for example, has long proposed a Sunshine Act that would incorporate all aspects of the Brown Act that ensure neighborhood councils are open and transparent in their dealings, while exempting parts of the law that cripple councils.

Whether Westwood Forward passes or not, if Westwood is truly to become the social destination it once was, the WWNC – or the neighborhood council that governs Westwood Village – must be the place where different groups can come to the table and find trouble. which they agree.

Because at the end of the day, we need neighborhood councils. We needed them to hold this city together in the 1990s, and we need them now to make sure this great city can grow in a way that works for all of its citizens, not just the presidents of homeowners associations.

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