May 1, 2001 - From the May, 2001 issue

Neighborhood Empowerment 101: Mark Ridley-Thomas Opines

The idea of neighborhood involvement in city governance has piqued the interest of many within the confines of L.A. and fostered the following questions: Will it add another level of disfunctionality to an already slow bureaucracy? Will it impale an already arduous development process? And are the residents of L.A.-who have long ignored the importance of civic engagement-ready to take governance into their own hands? TPR posed these questions to L.A. Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, who responded candidly that these councils may just be the salvation L.A. needs to keep it from unraveling at the seams.


Mark Ridley-Thomas

Mark, the L.A. City Council has just approved a plan to create a system of neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles. Give our readers a synopsis of the plan. And given your long experience with neighborhood councils, does it meet with your approval?

The Government Efficiency Committee (the Committee that reviewed the DONE plan) has always considered as its priority the need to make sure that the City has a plan that will invite the fullest and deepest level of neighborhood participation possible. There are a few items that warrant continued review: term limits for leadership, outreach and balanced representation on the governing board.

All in all, the work of the Committee has been thoughtful and thorough and has been an extremely useful counterbalance to the plan advanced by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE).

You created a similar Neighborhood Empowerment Congress in your district. I assume you went through many of the predicaments that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment has struggled with in reaching its recommendations. What makes one of these neighborhood councils work effectively?

Throughout this entire process-even as far back as the original Charter debates-we have attempted to create an environment that has the flexibility to adapt to individual communities yet still serve the city as a whole.

This does not mean that I am advocating a lack of structure or uniformity. The framework must simply help to create a process that fosters creative ideas and helps to implement constructive input. The disadvantage of neighborhood councils would be rigidity.

Mark, you make an allusion to the problems associated with involving neighborhood councils in the deliberations about land use at the micro-level while not losing sight of the macro-level needs of this City and the region. Has that been a struggle even in your Neighborhood Empowerment Congress?

Yes. But, we corrected the problem in the Empowerment Congress by creating an Economic Development Council. Its express purpose is to involve residents with a variety of backgrounds-architecture, planning, development, etc.-in deliberations about the advancement and development of an increased quality of life in the eighth district and its surrounding areas.

These people know the issues relevant to getting a project done. And they understand the importance of issues like quality and design. So any major project that comes into my district has to be reviewed by the Economic Development Council. That project is then the beneficiary of an articulated set of community concerns addressed early in the process, not after the fact.

Now Fred Gaines, a land use attorney and VICA Board member, stated in a TPR interview while this process was being debated under charter reform, that while he was an advocate for local decision making councils, the fact that these proposed neighborhood councils would have no decision making power merely added another layer to government and served to adversely affect the development climate in Los Angeles by prolonging the permitting and entitlement process. What's your reaction to Fred's concerns now that we've moved into implementation?

His concerns are reasonable, but they arise out of a lack of understanding as to what the benefits of an informed group of constituents can be. With the implementation of the neighborhood councils we will see the same kind of positive reaction that is visible in my district. We will have a system where-rather than having to meet a separate community group with a different agenda each time a project is proposed-developers will finally have continuity and a commonality in the issues that are raised and discussed. This framework should actually aid a developer in discovering what the legitimate community interests are and dealing with them systematically.

Neighborhood councils, as you suggest, will obviously only be as good as their constituent members. A recent Harvard University study found Los Angeles residents trust each other much less than most other Americans and that civic engagement is more likely to be determined by social status and education than by anything else. Are we really ready for this form of empowerment at the local level? Have we invested enough in that infrastructure?

My experiences in the eighth district are hugely positive. And my effectiveness as a local elected official has been significantly enhanced by the relationship that has been developed between the constituents that I represent and my office. This system fosters an environment where people can build social capital and work together for the good of the whole-across racial lines, across class lines, and despite religious differences. Much of that would not be the case if not for this vehicle called the Empowerment Congress.

However, I suspect we have not invested enough in this form of empowerment citywide, but it's high time that we start. And there are no real preliminaries to just simply getting into it. If we do not, our City's level of diversity itself may become a liability, not an asset.

A similar endeavor to the neighborhood councils are the Area Planning Commissions (APCs) that were established last year. One of the problems with that newly formed system, however, is that a lot of work went into determining boundaries and working out the legalese of the ordinance, and not enough into teaching the commissioners about planning and land use. Will there be any requirements in the enacting ordinance for the neighborhood councils that would give these representatives experience into the nuts and bolts of planning, real estate or governance? And, what's the liability to the city's planning if that doesn't happen?

There has to be some training that goes on, but much of the learning that can go on, does so in the context of experiencing the discussion and debating the issues-there's a powerful set of concerns that emerge in the context of people simply doing the work.

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This is a question of civic engagement and participatory democracy. And I do think we need some guidance as to how to make that work well in the City of Los Angeles. But properly done, this could be a hugely important way for Los Angeles to become a city that takes its human infrastructure seriously and causes the social capital to have value-and that is currently not the case.

Mark, no neighborhood lives in a vacuum. Could you respond to President Bush's recent remarks to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he said, "The continued renewal of our cities requires five commitments: better education, broader home ownership, faster economic growth, easier environmental cleanup, and stronger communities and charities. All of these goals are reflected in the budget that I am proposing which the Congress is now debating." Mark, these sound like themes that you could resonate with. Give us your reaction to the President's budget and these themes as you see it.

Those are pretty generic. They're not bad, they simply aren't exhaustive. But, it's not a question of the designation or nomenclature, it's really about implementation.

For me the key issue in implementing a system like the neighborhood councils is making the system benefit the common good, not precipitate further balkanization. Empowerment itself is not necessarily a good thing if it's used for destructive purposes.

Well, let's turn from the Conference of Mayors to the L.A. Mayor's race. What's at stake for your district and its neighborhoods in this mayoral contest?

The issue that's coming into focus is: What kind of city will Los Angeles become? And will we continue to evolve? It's not as simple as who the next mayor will be. It's a question of what the new Mayor represents.

I have endorsed Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor, whom I've known for 20 years since we co-chaired the Black Latino Roundtable. He has the skills needed to build coalitions and work with the City Council toward real, effective solutions. Antonio has the heart and capacity to make a substantial difference in the City of Los Angeles and is committed to creating opportunities for everyone.

Term limits are starting to materialize and the amount of new faces on the Council will be staggering. Compound that with John Ferraro's passing and the dynamic of the Council is about to change dramatically. What changes do you perceive will take place in how the city is governed? And what are the implications for your constituents in the Eighth District?

It's a time of tremendous change. And the question is whether that change will be marked by uncertainty or defined in terms of opportunity. I wish to view it in terms of opportunity and hope to capitalize on what can be done so that the constituents feel like they can contribute to making this city more livable.

Term limits and soon reapportionment. What's at stake in reapportionment for your constituents? What do you see happening? And are there any consequences?

Reapportionment becomes very critical as it relates to shifting demographics and changing power structures. Frankly, rather than causing reapportionment to become a battleground, I'd like for us to take a deep breath and see it as a way to redistribute power and truly enhance the civic life of our city, our county and our state.

Interestingly, there are voting rights that will determine what can and should happen. And some of those laws are being turned on their head to serve the interest of the present administration in Washington. So I suspect my hope for avoiding confrontation may be simply that-hope.

Let's bring this to a close, Mark. The voters of the State, the City and the County have been quite generous in the last couple years with bond monies for schools, parks and libraries. How can we best leverage those dollars for new schools, parks and libraries, etc. to the benefit of the inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles?

I think that the renewed interest in schools and parks will put the City in good stead as it relates to children and their families. And no doubt, it will make Los Angeles more attractive with respect to the public elements. It's amenities that make great cities great.

And, great cities do right by their citizenry. And that really does mean having a network of public facilities-be they schools, parks, libraries, etc.-that enrich and enhance the culture of the city.

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