March 30, 1993 - From the March, 1993 issue

Joel Wachs: 100 Neighborhood Councils Would Help Govern L.A.

The Planning Report seeks to lift the level of debate on the future of Los Angeles by presenting the planning visions of the major 1993 Los Angeles mayoral candidates. Thus far, we have presented articles on the views of Nick Patsaouras, Richard Katz, Michael Woo, and Tom Houston

This month, Councilman Joel Wachs has Written for The Planning Report his most detailed description yet of his proposal to create neighborhood councils around Los Angeles. 

Wachs has been a member of the City Council since 1971 and represents the Second District.

I want us to take to heart the words of Vice-President Gore, when he so poignantly reminded us in his acceptance speech that we were put on this earth to think about more than just ourselves —that we’re given the gift of life, and each of us gets to choose what we do with the limited time that we have.

We can’t leave everything up to others, and we can’t leave it all up to the government either. Each of us has to accept our own responsibility to bring about positive change. 

I believe we can give people hope and opportunity, put people back to work again, turn Los Angeles around, and make it safer again. But it will take bold and imaginative leadership, and a totally new approach to governing. It will take leadership which is willing to reach down into the roots of our city, and share power with the people who live here. 

If there’s one thing I’ve seen as I’ve gone around this city, it’s that people have something to say. They want to feel they can make a difference. They want to make things better. We need to unite Angelenos of every race and color and creed, and rebuild this city — not from the top down, but from the bottom up.

A Family of Neighborhoods 

In essence, we need to empower people. And the best place to start is in our neighborhoods. If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s a neighborhood. A place where we call home. 

What I envision is turning Los Angeles into a Family of Neighborhoods, in which everyone participates and everyone takes pride. I am totally committed to empowering people in this fashion, and I have a specific plan for doing so.

If elected Mayor, I will, on my first day in office, initiate a fundamental reform of city government in order to give people a real opportunity to participate. 

I will start by empowering each of our city’s 100 or more neighborhoods to form their own neighborhood councils, which select their own leaders, determine their own priorities, and reflect the broad diversity of their own communities.

Community, business, school and religious leaders will come together in each neighborhood and begin the process of defining the boundaries of their neighborhoods, forming their own councils and selecting their own leaders in whatever manner they choose. 

What the Councils Would Do 

As they do in cities like Seattle, Portland, St. Paul, Birmingham and San Antonio, which have already begun similar neighborhood councils, they will participate in a wide range of critical issues. 

These issues will include community-based policing; crime prevention projects; job training programs: transportation; planning and zoning decisions; neighborhood revitalization projects; alcohol permits; conditional use permits; community clean-up projects; street closures and barricades; traffic controls; preferential parking zones; parking meter rates; acquiring and improving parks; variances to Building and Safety citations; speed limits; police permits for parades, pool halls, etc.; design of community buildings, libraries, parks and city facilities; historic designations; placement of bus benches; creation of assessment districts; demolitions; neighborhood disputes; use of public lands for development; availability of tax forfeited and surplus properties; water and power rates; and most importantly, the determination of city budget and spending priorities. 

The councils will also nominate people from their own neighborhoods to serve on key city commissions, so that our commissions reflect the economic, cultural and geographic diversity of our city, rather than being a “Who’s Who” of campaign contributors. 

And they will all meet together quarterly on a citywide basis, as a Congress of Neighborhoods, to exchange their concerns and form a consensus which creates unity from our diversity. 

All city departments will be required to give each neighborhood council priority access to city records and staff, and the councils would be guaranteed adequate advance notice about matters of interest to them. 

Each neighborhood council would: obtain a non-profit status; organize open elections and provide free membership for anyone who lives, works or owns property in their community; develop a plan of goals and objectives, including a “Bill of Responsibilities” and a neighborhood disaster preparedness plan; adopt a nondiscrimination policy; and develop a plan for communicating with the people in their neighborhood on a regular basis. 

Funding for the councils would come from new and redirected state and federal grants, private foundations, and money they raise on their own. To the extent that public funds are used, the City Council and Mayor will provide for financial accountability. 

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No More Business as Usual 

This concept has the ability to address the pressing problems of our city more effectively than the “business as usual” approach of enacting an assortment of programs which sound good, but which are too inadequately funded to make a real difference.

For instance, we will never have enough money to put a cop on every corner, but we can have hundreds of thousands of trained eyes and ears ready to keep their neighborhoods crime free. The neighborhood councils can organize community based policing programs in every community.

And with some training the councils can even provide neighborhood dispute resolution services. Astonishingly, 20-30% of all 911 calls are for domestic and neighborhood disputes.

A Role in Job Creation

Job development projects and neighborhood revitalization efforts have a much better chance of succeeding if the neighborhoods are involved from the beginning.

The councils can promote mentoring and apprenticeship programs by obtaining the personal commitments of successful business and professional people to take on at least one or more underprivileged youngsters, and teach those young men and women a skill which brightens the prospects for their future.

They can play a major role in convincing each of our city’s churches and synagogues to take responsibility for one or more homeless families, and support programs like “Hope in Youth” to keep young people out of gangs. 

Creating Consensus Up Front 

Although there may be an initial fear that this new structure may create a more time-consuming and burdensome process, the opposite has actually been the result in the other cities. Right now we get bogged down because too often the neighborhoods aren’t brought into the process until the end. The result is angry residents forced into an assortment of last minute efforts to have their voices heard, or simply giving up with a feeling of alienation towards City Hall. These confrontations commonly cause significant delays at the City Council or commission level while additional hearings are ordered, more information is requested, legal battles are resolved, or compromises are sought. 

Everything would go much more smoothly if the concerns were raised and resolved at the front end of the process. 

But this reform will not be calmly accepted. Opposition has already started coming from elected officials, commissioners. bureaucrats, and the other special interests who wield strongest influence, and who have an interest in keeping things the way they are. In other words, the resistance is coming from those who will be forced to share some of their power. 

The strongest support is coming from those who for too long have kept out of the political system — lots of ordinary people. And many enlightened business interests are supporting the plan because they see the benefits from the saving time and money they will gain from developing a consensus for their plans in the early stages. 

A Sense of Ownership 

Ultimately, communities will gain a stronger identity and control over their future. And when people feel a sense of ownership and pride, they will contribute more of their time and energy to making things better. 

As Margaret Mead told us, change will come when the people discover it’s possible.

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