Friday, February 15, 2008

Food for thought on Neighborhood Councils

Out of the discussion regarding the City's proposed mansionization ordinance, questions and concerns have been raised about the Bel-Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council (BABCNC).

There have also been questions about the neighborhood council system as well as the purpose and function of a neighborhood council.

Some of these discussions have also centered on the role of the Bel-Air Association representatives who are representing the interests of the Bel-Air community on the BABCNC.

The following article is from CityWatch and was written by the former General Manager for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and gives a viewpoint on this meaty topic.

People with Power Don’t want to Share It
Empowerment Report
Greg Nelson

“Neighborhood councils have become tools of obstructionists.”—Harold Katz

If I hear this one more time, my acid reflux will go off the chart.

It was the warning heard most often during the charter reform process from those in the business community who didn’t want to see neighborhood councils created in any way, shape, or form. I

n a recent Los Angeles Business Journal op ed story Westside businessman Harold Katz slammed the neighborhood councils for having become the very thorns in the sides of the developers that he predicted they would become during the charter deliberations years ago.

There are two “golden” rules of politics. One is what Deep Throat in All the President’s Men told us, “Follow the money.” The second is what we knew to be true from earliest discussions about the neighborhood council system, “People who have power don’t want to share it.” Developers have power.

Neighborhood councils, or any group of concerned people, will not agree with every project proposed by developers. That doesn’t make them obstructionists. It simply means that not every development is a good one.

There are legitimate reasons for neighborhood councils to question the size, density, and effects of some projects. What’s good for General Motors isn’t necessarily good for the USA.

I’d like to see neighborhood councils ask the million dollar question: How many people can this city hold anyway? That’s a discussion worth having, not being an obstructionist.

Or do we just keep building higher, bigger, denser, and wider with no regard to the cumulative impacts on each community, or to the capacity of the roads, parking, sewers, water supply, and the infrastructure?

Certainly, I would like neighborhood councils evolve to the point that they are proposing alternative solutions to the city’s problems. They shouldn’t have to, but since the City Council isn’t all that active legislatively, it seems necessary.

I have always felt that neighborhood councils and governmental agencies will become, if they aren’t there already, the only place where objective and balanced long-term thinking will occur.

One of the disadvantages of term limits is that “long term” for elected officials is up to the point of their last re-election. Lengthy solutions become less attractive when the politician knows that he or she won’t be around to turn the first spade of dirt or cut the ribbon while the photographer snaps photos that impress nobody and are quickly forgotten.

But for neighborhood councils to reach this point, five things need to happen.

1. Government needs to stop preoccupying the limited volunteer time of the neighborhood council members with bad proposals and projects that require a response.

2. Neighborhood councils need better access to government’s staff experts. If City Council members, for instance, didn’t have the assistance of city departmental staff, next to nothing would ever get done.

3. City Hall needs to be more open and transparent. It isn’t fair for city hall to wheel out a proposal at the last minute, not involve neighborhood councils in its development, and then criticize them for not rubber-stamping it. We’re beginning to forget that the City Charter guarantees that neighborhood councils be given enough time to weigh in before votes are taken. City hall shouldn’t be able to get around that by developing plans in private and then releasing them when the deadline nears.

4. Leaders need to emerge from the neighborhood councils who will take responsibility for disseminating information on the major issues.

5. DONE needs to ensure that neighborhood councils have the skills and resources to accomplish this. It’s not going to happen through osmosis. DONE’s job is to promote empowerment.

(Greg Nelson participated in the birth and development of the LA Neighborhood Council system and most recently served as the General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Nelson now provides news and issues analysis to CityWatch.)