Los Angeles' new Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is creating a system of neighborhood councils to restructure city government and local planning. Will it succeed?
The draft plan released recently by the City of Los Angeles' newly created Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils marks the beginning of a profound restructuring of that city's government.
Historically, the perception of power in Los Angeles has been concentrated in a small group of people, physically located Downtown and isolated from the far flung masses. This new Plan for recognized, certified, and functioning neighborhood bodies citywide (if only legally "advisory") represents a major step toward de-centralizing political authority. Empowering active local councils will be a sea change for LA, radiating power, and responsibility, back to the communities that make up the fabric of the city as a whole.
The mechanics detailing how this shift is going to take place will benefit from flexibility rather than having one uniform set of strict rules and requirements. The unique circumstances in each of the city's individual neighborhoods will ultimately generate a range of organizations with widely varying interests. One size will definitely not fit all.
As outlined by DONE, Neighborhood Councils will be subject to three basic criteria. First, each council must encompass a minimum of 25,000 residents. The delicate balance lies in insuring LA doesn't wind up with too many councils, relegating the participants to background noise, and at the same time guaranteeing that neighborhood issues are not lost along the way. The answer for groups which may represent large, dense population segments (Echo Park) or broad geographic areas (Northridge) will be to operate at a sub-committee level and then come together in the interest of the community as a whole.
The DONE draft plan wisely foresees that Neighborhood Councils may overlap, but wrongly permits councils to establish a veto power over sharing territory. Given the volunteer nature of grass roots organizations, and the ebb and flow associated with the life span of such organizations, it should left to DONE to decide if a group is viable and whether it's boundaries make sense. Along with that must come some formal means of communication and interaction between neighboring and overlapping councils.
Second, each Council must be open to all stakeholders in the community. The DONE criteria for certification are specifically designed to encourage participation by all community members, and to prevent one interest group from pre-empting all others. The real difficulty will come in areas of the City historically lacking participation. Outreach to those communities must be an essential component of the plan. At the same time, DONE cannot hope to enforce rigorous, expensive and onerous reporting requirements for certification, lest they scare away the very groups necessary to make the system successful. Nurturing groups in traditionally under served communities will be complex, consuming significant resources.
Lastly, each group must be self motivated. If it works at this scale, this will be a spectacular lesson in grass roots democracy. Differing groups will come together for varying purposes. One community will focus on land use, another will highlight police services and yet another will feature recreation and parks. Groups will come and go with time. The official map of Neighborhood Councils will be a fluid one, yet as power ultimately flows to the councils by the virtue of the fact that they exist and are recognized as legitimate voices of the community, they will take on a life of their own.
Like everything else in City government, it comes down to money. This revolution isn't going to come cheap. Implicit in the recent vote to revamp the City Charter was a recognition that Neighborhood Councils would cost money. Quite a bit of money. The Los Angeles Times asked in an editorial (after ignoring the release of the Plan in all but its Valley edition) whether the city should be spending money on Neighborhood Councils in light of the costs associated with the Rampart police scandal. The answer is an emphatic YES! All of the city's neighborhoods deserve to fully participate in its government. In that manner, communities can all work to ensure that other Ramparts don't happen.
In the current election cycle, every mayoral and city council candidate must commit to funding DONE so that the Neighborhood Councils have the necessary resources to fulfill the vision of the new Charter. Excuses, such as Rampart, cannot be allowed to derail this train as it leaves it's first station. The last thing this City needs is for the hopes and dreams of neighborhood empowerment embodied in Neighborhood Councils to be left un-DONE, for the want of adequate funding.
Bill Christopher, an architect and urban designer, is the founder of People for Livable and Active Neighborhoods in Los Angeles (PLAN/LA) and a former member of the City's Planning Commission.
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