July 1, 2001 - From the July, 2001 issue

Whither Neighborhood Councils In L.A.? Studio City Resident's Association President Offers Perspective

The last year has seen Los Angeles install Area Planning Councils (APCs) in an attempt to better integrate the community into the development approval process. This year will see the implementation of a Neighborhood Council system aimed at raising the decibel level of the community's voice. Tony Lucente, South Valley APC Commissioner and President of the Studio City Resident's Association, has been involved in both of these experiments and offers TPR his take on the APCs, what the future holds for Neighborhood Councils, and whether either of these are changing the priority level of neighborhood concerns at City Hall.

Anthony Lucente

Tony, you currently serve the city and your community in a number of capacities, including being an Area Planning Commissioner (APC), as well as president of the Studio City Residents Association. Give our readers your perspective on the impact of the recently finalized city charter changes, particularly the Neighborhood Councils. Why are you so supportive of these new Neighborhood Councils?

The APCs are offering neighborhoods the ability to provide substantive input regarding proposed projects within their community. And because of that input, governance on planning matters has effectively been brought closer to the people. The Neighborhood Councils are the next step towards continuing that trend and truly having government listen to the community's voice.

Critics of charter reform believe the Neighborhood Councils are merely finesse—that the language in the new charter is so unspecific and amorphous that no one really knows what will come out of such reform. You're now engaged in incorporating one; you've testified before the charter commissions; and you have defended the councils against serious criticism. What precisely do you see emanating from the evolution of the Neighborhood Council movement and from the current certification process?

I supported Neighborhood Councils primarily so that underserved neighborhoods could have an effective organizing tool and truly begin to have a voice in government. However, the currently approved system is flawed in that the guidelines and responsibilities of the Councils are broad and offer no uniform structure for nurturing neighborhood empowerment in the city.

Substantial uniformity in form and purpose is very important in my view. We raised that point during the public meeting process and strongly supported a higher degree of specificity to address this issue. We also lobbied for a smaller number of neighborhood councils so that we could concentrate on a few neighborhoods and work through inherent problems in the system. While some changes were made, unfortunately both of these ideas were generally compromised.

A number of areas have what's called a "vocal minority" when it comes to planning issues—local residents who dominate the discussion because of their decibel level, rather than actually voicing the interests of the community. Do you see the Neighborhood Council processes being able to mitigate that and temper it with a more representative process?

Because of the nature of the Neighborhood Councils and some of the stipulations that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and the City Council have placed into the certification process, Neighborhood Councils will separate the groups that are truly representative from those who are not. As a result, I think that communities will garner a greater voice because our City officials will now have an important means to know what the true sentiment of the community is, especially in communities that were previously not well organized.

About a year ago, TPR interviewed you on the same subject, and you mentioned that the powers and authority given back to the public through the Neighborhood Council system might be an impediment to local and regional economic development if not properly implemented. As we now are on the verge of widespread Neighborhood Council certification, do you have enough informantion to judge whether neighborhood empowerment is in fact discouraging economic development?

The voice of the community—as presented in the APC system—has offered a much more balanced approach to economic development and planning at the local level. While I haven't examined the statistics, I would hazard to say that since the APCs were established just over one year ago, a number of projects that might have been appealed to the City Council in the past, were not because both the community had input and the developers felt like they'd been given a chance to make their case.

How do Area Planning Commissions, and the emergence of Neighborhood Councils, affect the role and responsibilities of the 15 City Council members?

While the success or failure of Neighborhood Councils does not rest entirely upon the City Council, they will be substantially impacted by the Council office's view towards representative government. But regardless of their posture, the Charter language gives communities an effective mechanism to make their voices heard.

Metro Investment Report, TPR's sister publication, ran an article last month entitled "The State of California Regions: Vote Globally, Act Locally, Govern Regionally." In it, Assembly Speaker Hertzberg was quoted as follows: "The winners in the new economy will be the regions that learn to work together to relieve traffic congestion, build affordable housing, preserve open space, and promote economic development. If government is going to be effective in this new age, it's going to have to start thinking regionally." One could argue that the Neighborhood Council movement really focuses the city on neighborhoods to the exclusion and detriment of regional thinking. How do you respond to that assertion?

That is definitely a risk that must be factored into these discussions. One must remember that Neighborhood Councils are only one step in addressing the gap between residents and City government. The Neighborhood Councils should bring all facets of a community together and give them a voice on issues that directly impact their neighborhoods. While their input is important on all issues, their primary focus should be on local issues-regional decisions must be made based on broad input from many sources with the best interest of the city as a whole in mind. Neighborhood empowerment should not come at the expense of balanced regional growth.

During the campaign for charter reform, many of its foremost advocates asserted that the reform was the best interlope to secession. We're in the beginning of the implementation now and the secession debate is also still alive. Does it provide relief from energy towards secession, or is it inconsequential regarding that debate?

Well, the jury is still out on that.

But I can tell you that there are a number of secessionists that are pleased that Neighborhood Councils are moving forward because they think that the City of Los Angeles has no possible way of fulfilling the expectations that Charter reform instilled in individual neighborhoods. And they believe that can only add to their argument.


How do you weigh in on the argument?

The two main factors for Neighborhood Councils are funding and the determination of the Mayor and City Council in attempting to make these Neighborhood Councils work. Mayor Hahn has been supportive on all counts and I expect that to continue.

Another dilemma will be the integration of the already formed organizations like the Studio City Residents Association into the Neighborhood Council framework. If we alienate the residents' associations, the local planning groups and the organizations like Mark Ridley-Thomas's Empowerment Congress, we will have a large problem and people might see the Neighborhood Councils as something other than truly representative bodies.

Tony, you have a full-time corporate responsibility and you also spend your extra time civically engaged in the Area Planning Commission and 2 or 3 other commissions, but if you were asked to be the senior advisor to the new mayor on Neighborhood Councils, what would you tell him his agenda should be?

I would recommend that the mayor look at existing models of effective community representation in Los Angeles and replicate those models in other neighborhoods. He should draw on the participation of not just residents, but every group in a particular area. And most of all he needs to start simple. Start with a few communities where we can really organize and be successful. The main risk I see is that these groups will bite off more than they can chew. And that might cause more chaos rather than increased representation.

Knowing that we'll revisit this topic again, what will separate the good from the not-so-good Neighborhood Councils?

Since results take time, a year from now the story on Neighborhood Councils will likely be mixed. But because of the new Councilmembers support and the Mayor's vow to provide adequate funding we will probably see certified Neighborhood Councils in some areas of the City-of which probably only a few will fully provide the organization and voice needed to produce the benefits expressed in the Charter.

I see the key elements of a successful Neighborhood Council as: 1) A unified body of residential, business and non-profit interests; 2) A formalized process for hearing and offering suggestions on specific development projects; and 3) A clear and substantive process to provide input on other issues and City budget priorities.

Unfortunately, the neighborhoods who are ready to provide that kind of framework are those that are already well organized, well represented and already provide that kind of input to their representatives.

What benchmarks should our readers use when attempting to judge how successfully the city is in implementing the laudable goals of the Neighborhood Council idea?

I'd say an important benchmark would be to look at where these Neighborhood Councils have been established. Are they strictly in communities that have already been well organized? Or are they in other areas that are currently devoid of effective community representation from the residents and business point of view?

I would also look at the issues. Is the infrastructure that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment put in place really supporting these councils? Does it help expand a base of knowledge and information? Finally, I would look to the decisions and rhetoric that come out of these councils to see if the voice of the neighborhood is really being heard.

I'd also look to see if they stifling development, or promoting a balanced economic development in their community? Have they provided greater certainty on land use issues or simply become another layer of bureaucracy? Are they trying to advance more of the same, or are they trying to expand the horizon of their community beyond land use issues to deal with transportation and traffic, crime & safety issues and, of course, education?

Since you mentioned education, let's close with one last question. Neighborhood Councils are a manifestation of the city's charter reform process. And while they don't have jurisdiction over school district actions, they will of course be impacted as LAUSD proceeds in building 85-100 schools throughout Los Angeles. How do you anticipate the school district's land acquisition needs and Neighborhood Council aspirations for local control over landuse being resolved in the future?

Does the city even talk to LAUSD? I'm not sure how effective that line of communication is let alone the communication and coordination between a Neighborhood Council and LAUSD. We might have seen the kind of cooperation you speak of if the City Charter reforms addressed that issue directly. They had the opportunity to add some form of direct school district oversight to the representation process but chose not to. I wish they had, but I guess we'll have to wait until the next charter reform process to see that kind of language and coordination.


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