September 1, 2001 - From the September, 2001 issue

L.A.'s Charter Reform: Assessing The Impacts Of Area Planning And Neighborhood Councils

In Part I of this interviewGeorge Kieffer, Mark Siegel and Maryann Reyes set the stage by painting a picture of the complex nature of governance in L.A. and the difficulties inherent in the Charter reform process. This month, our panel gets down to the minutia of the effort by describing how it decided to implement Neighborhod Councils instead of boroughs, why it avoided DWP reform, and how the new nature of governance in L.A. will effect the greater Southern California region. TPR is pleased to provide its readership with the concluding portion of our look at Charter Reform.


Maryann Reyes

Area Planning Commissions and Neighborhood Councils were a central theme in much of the Charter testimony and deliberations. These citizen empowerment tools obviously are not self-effectuating and must co-exist and compete with non-City-of-L.A. jurisdictions such as the Los Angeles Unified School District. (LAUSD has already notified all jurisdictions within its boundaries that they are going to override local zoning and planning procedures for the benefit of siting new schools.) In light of the limited jurisdictional authority of the APCs and Neighborhood Councils, do they still have a meaningful role in neighborhood planning?

Mark Siegel

The success of the Neighborhood Council system will depend on involving all stakeholders-including the school district-in a dialogue. This action seems to be very hostile towards communities and says, "Communities be damned."

George Kieffer

The school district is really saying, "We have a public priority, too." By making this announcement they can enter into the community deabte with better leverage. In the end, local communities are going to have to work with the school district in one way or another to get these schools in place. The school district's authority would exist whether or not we have APCs. But I think the APCs will actually help in the long run.

What then is the potential of these new APCs and Neighborhood Councils? Will they actually relieve any of the tension and frustration that presently seems to exist between local communities and City Hall?

Maryann Reyes

The old structure caused an enormous amount of frustration and confusion particularly when people would have to go before a multitude of city boards to gain fairly simple project approvals. The Area Planning Commissions and Neighborhood Councils offer a more streamlined way of navigating through the city's planning and permitting process by improving the decision-making process so that there is less frustration and cost to developers while at the same time giving residents a more flexible and amenable public comment process.

George Kieffer

I think Neighborhood Councils will always have some tension with Planning authority. But that's not a bad thing. In the end, it will help.

I'm also very optomistic about the Area Planning Commissions because of some of the things that appear to be happening at the citywide level. Peter Weil, the Chair of the Citywide Planning Commission, told me that because of the APCs, his board is now inclined to think more strategically about the future of planning and development in L.A. and concentrate on creating a more comfortable city with a better quality of life. That's the kind of thing that an institutional change can do-encourage government to function in a way that it hasn't before.

At the Area Planning Commission level, the APC Commissioners seem to be well versed on the local issues that are important to communities. They are making solid decisions, they are bringing a more informed outlook to what makes a healthy environment and, ultimately, they give public acceptance to whatever decisions are made.

TPR interviewed Tony Lucente just prior to his nomination by Mayor Hahn to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. In that interview, he said, "I can tell you there are a number of secessionists that are pleased the neighborhood councils are moving forward because they think the City of Los Angeles has no possible way of fulfilling the expectations that charter reform instilled in individual neighborhoods. They believe that that can only add to the argument for secession." What are you hearing? Is Lucente's caution justified?

Mark Siegel

There is a "coming-together" happening throughout the City. There is still a lot of concern about rules, money and the technicalities of the organizing process, but there is a rising expectation that we are beginning to see meaningful change.

What I try to remind them is that power resides in the organization. If you are well organized and representative of all the stakeholders your voice will be heard loud and clear. If you are the opposite, your voice will be ignored.

In the same interview, Lucente went on to say, "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 the 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 the representatives. Others won't be able to." How do you each react to his assessment?

George Kieffer

Being supportive and providing assistance to neighborhood councils doesn't necessarily mean that every neighborhood will have equally strong or effective representation. That's up to the local people to decide. The City government can encourage, support and (to some extent) initiate local neighborhood councils. But it can't mandate success in any particular area.

As to your other question, there are those who think that the Neighborhood Council system will discourage secession because they provide local areas with a voice, there are those who think it will encourage secession. Regardless of the outcome, the greater Los Angeles area is still an enormous geographic area dominated by a multitude of small villages, each of which can benefit from citizen involvement.

The other thing to keep in mind is that there is a provision in the Charter that calls for a review of these Neighborhood Councils by another Charter Commission after 5 years of operation. That will allow us to make adjustments.

Mark Siegel

My personal belief is that Neighborhood Councils will be anti-secession and build sentiment that we can work things out if people are committed. There are rising expectations, and as expectations are not fulfilled, there is certainly potential of a backlash. But if Mayor Hahn stays true and committed to his position of strengthening grass-roots representation, the future of Neighborhood Councils and of keeping the City together will be very upbeat.

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In terms of the comment that the well-organized communities are further along, I too believe that is problematic, but not insolvable. The Mayor and the Department can devote resources to organizers and non-profits and really make the system work in all communities.

TPR excerpted a speech by David Fleming in June where he advanced the notion of a borough system for Los Angeles as the alternative to what your Charter reforms produced. That form of local governance, as he made clear in his speech, was once in our charter, but was not discussed by your Charter Commissions. Why not?

Maryann Reyes

We spent a lot of time through focus groups and public hearings trying to gather public input on the borough system. I don't know if we didn't go far enough. We spent a lot of time looking at other city models and felt very strongly that the borough system simply would not fit with the Los Angeles governance structure and the amount of flexibility that we wanted to give all neighborhoods.

George Kieffer

The possibility of a borough system was actually contemplated in an earlier charter in Los Angeles and abandoned in a later amendment a number of years ago. The borough system is most closely associated with New York City, which has largely undone the system over the last few years. I don't think such a system is without merit. David's idea came late in the process and was not really fully thought out. It's something that might be considered in the future, but it had too little support and was too big of a jump to tackle in the environment we were in.

Another item introduced late in the Charter reform discussions was David Freeman's proposal for reform of DWP's governance. What became of that suggestion?

George Kieffer

Former DWP General Manager David Freeman approached us with a plan for reforming the governance structure of DWP. It was a thoughtful and stimulating idea. However, he did not have the support of the Mayor, the Council, the DWP Board, or any other outside group. So it did not get much attention.

What I said to David at the time was that any re-examination of the DWP governance structure should be focused solely on the Department and not part of our effort. DWP has special needs and must be flexible to the water and power environment. As to how flexible, that must be decided by a quasi-independent board so that L.A. can chart a course for the next 50 years. That's an examination that has to take place. However, Charter reform was not the right vehicle for that reform.

Another area that perhaps falls into the same category, was an absence of any discussion of state-local fiscal reform. Clearly Charter reform only had jurisdiction over the L.A. City Charter. But a Charter in the 21st Century, as a result of ballot propositions, changes in state laws, court decisions and initiatives is quite different from those adopted in 1927 or 1923. Why didn't the charter commissions deal with the changing nature of local government and sovereignty at the local level in the context of trying to reform our governance structure to better serve our constituents?

George Kieffer

The City of Los Angeles and the County of Los Angeles have historically not done a good job in marshalling political support in either Sacramento or Washington. Given that history, the decision to have the executive branch responsible for intergovernmental relations is in part an effort to focus more attention on dealing with such jurisdictional and fiscal issues. But there is no question in my mind that the confusing and tangled authority between federal, state and local governments undermines accountability and effective government and might be addressed soon.

Lastly, let's tie these threads together and look at whether Charter reform has better and more transparently knit the city into our region. Asm. Speaker Hertzberg appointed a Regionalism Commission at the beginning of this year to investigate the dwindling importance of political boundaries on environmental and quality of life issues. He was concerned that watersheds, mobility, air quality, and economic engines like harbors and airports are largely unaware of political boundaries. Is there anything in the new Charter that encourages the City to proactively and effectively engage in the governance of the L.A. Basin?

Mark Siegel

The City is not unique from other political jurisdictions that are coming together and falling apart at the same time. We have the secession movements attempting to break the City into smaller pieces and we have a neighborhood council movement declaring their intention to bring the City back together. With both of these forces ripping at the fabric of our city, there is a need, now more than ever, to address things regionally. Charter reform was a step in the right direction, but we've got to begin to solve these problems at a much larger scale.

George Kieffer

Cities need a leader with the power, knowledge and vision to deal with these kinds of intergovernmental relations holistically. If the future of Southern California lies in fostering collaborative regional governments, it's going to have to be done by strong leaders working creatively within existing governmental frameworks. This Charter should give the Mayor more flexibility to foster those partnerships. But a charter cannot "solve" that problem.

I'm afraid that we are still a long way from addressing these regional issues constructively. But if there is anything in the Charter that gives hope, it is that the City of Los Angeles decided to examine and restructure its own government and-against large odds-succeeded. People held out little hope for a restructuring of regional government. But most people held little hope that the two Charter Commissions would even be able to come up with a reformed Charter, let alone get it passed by 60-percent of the voters. Therein rests some level of optimism.

Maryann Reyes

As your question suggests, times have changed. The document we crafted establishes clear lines of governmental accountability while maintaining a level of flexibility that is essential if we hope to tackle the problems we are now facing.

L.A.'s new Charter allows for the development of a process that encourages residential, business, labor and other entities to have a meaningful input in governance. That's a big part of creating a governance structure that has the flexibility to cross the boundaries that you mention and forward a vision and agenda for, not only the City of L.A., but the Southern California region as well.

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