September 1, 2001 - From the September, 2001 issue

L.A.'s Empowerment Movement Isn't DONE, It's Evolving: An Exit Interview With Rosalind Stewart

Implementing a Neighborhood Council system in a city that had, by most accounts, given up on empowerment is difficult. Compound that with a constrained budget and an enormous diversity of language, culture and religion and you have an equation that could easily be described as "Mission Impossible." Despite those factors, 2 years after its birth, the Deptartment of Neighborhood Empowerment is moving forward and is about to see its first Councils certified. TPR asked Rosalind Stewart, former general manager of DONE, what that means for L.A. and how that progress bodes for the future of empowerment in the region.

Rosalind, you've led the Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) from its inception. Remind our readers of the Department's duties. And give us an update on it has evolved since your installation in 1999.

We were created to craft a citywide plan for a system of Neighborhood Councils giving residents, business owners, property owners and those otherwise active in communities throughout Los Angeles a greater voice in what goes on in governance.

That plan is written and the enacting Ordinance has been approved. And beginning October 6 neighborhood groups will be able to apply to become certified Neighborhood Councils. The key to stress is that this is only the beginning. Covering the city with Neighborhood Councils is going to take 10 to 15 years.

You mentioned the City Council's approval of the enacting Ordinance. How does that Ordinance create a better conduit between communities and City Hall? And can it really make representatives more responsive?

The City has never acknowledged, accepted or created an organized way for communities to participate in governance. We've had homeowners' groups, business groups, advisory groups and appointed groups, but this is the first time that the City has created a Department whose sole responsibility is to make sure that people are heard. There is an opportunity for the public to participate in a system of representation that is codified in the Charter and by Ordinance. This marks a significant change in culture for the City and its Departments.

You mention different representative groups already in existence. Will groups like the Sherman Oaks Homeowners' Association (SOHA) or the Empowerment Congress have the ability to seamlessly integrate into the Neighborhood Council framework?

You mention two very different examples of representative bodies-the Eighth District Empowerment Congress and Sherman Oaks Homeowners' Association. And the answer to that question is really different for each.

The Empowerment Congress model of representation offers a structure full of diversity and encourages representation from residents, businesses, schools, churches, non-profit associations, youth groups, etc. That is the inclusive vision that we had when we were developing the Neighborhood Council system guidelines.

On the other hand, the Sherman Oaks Homeowners' Association is an organization of homeowners. That organization will not qualify as a Neighborhood Council because it does not represent the diverse interests of the Sherman Oaks community. I think they realize that and in the most recent conversations I've had with them, they aren't sure that they're going to participate. That, of course, is their perogative. But others in Sherman Oaks are looking to organize a Neighborhood Council and regardless of SOHA's decision, that community will be represented.

What happens with groups that choose not to go forward with the certification process? Do you get the sense that their voice in government be diminished?

A group's voice in government depends more on the political leadership in place and the credence and credibility that a specific group holds with particular Councilmembers. There's absolutely nothing that will prevent any organization from still working with, approaching and advocating particular issues directly with elected officials. However, if an issue comes up where a Neighborhood Council-with consensus-and an individual group are at odds, I think any elected official would have a hard time voting against a neighborhood council.

Let me jump in with a quote from our interview with Tony Lucente back in July. He said, "I supported Neighborhood Councils primarily so that under-served neighborhoods could have an effective organizing tool and truly begin to have a voice in government." He went on to say that the currently approved system is flawed in that the guidelines are too vague and that they do not supply a uniform structure for nurturing empowerment in areas that have become disenfranchised. Is the current process too vague?

The philosophy under which the original plan was written, put forward and adopted was that of a different administration. The Riordan administration emphasized that Neighborhood Councils should be grassroots, organic, independent and self-run. Mayor Hahn and our new administration seem to have a somewhat different point of view and want the City to be more involved.

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is again, as will always be the case with the Department, in the midst of evolution. There is absolutely no reason why this Council or Mayor cannot amend the Ordinance and address new and expanded priorities. However, as with most things, the most important part of any addition of powers is the funding component. And this administration seems focused on providing the system with increased funding.

You mention Mayor Hahn's new focus. He recently announced a 7-point plan giving neighborhood commissioners a range of new powers including citywide and regional oversight into council policies. Will such a mid-course correction harm the evolution of these burgeoning neighborhood organizations?

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I don't think it will set back any of the work these groups have completed, but it does offer a different structure of interaction between the Neighborhood Councils, Commissions and City Departments.

None of the ideas that Mayor Hahn has are detrimental to the neighborhood council system. If anything, they seem very supportive and may allow for greater community participation. However, the recently outlined responsibilities of the new Neighborhood Commissioners-such as the regional responsibility-have not been fleshed out yet. Those currently involved in the Department don't know how those suggestions will be implemented. Frankly, its something I look forward to seeing play itself out.

You raise the issue of interaction between Neighborhood Councils, City Commissions and City Departments. In your last interview with TPR, you also talked about those linkages, specifically in regard to city planning. Have linkages between the Neighborhood Councils and Area Planning Commissions (APCs) become more integral to this empowerment process?

The linkages will continue to evolve. But what has changed is that city planning has really acknowledged and accepted the nature of the Neighborhood Councils. There will absolutely be an opportunity for the Neighborhood Councils to testify before both the APCs and the Citywide Planning Commission on all issues of concern. In fact the evolution of these Neighborhood Councils has been so successful that other city departments have begun to recognize that this form of empowerment is a reality and they are doing what they can to make a place for Neighborhood Councils at the table.

Are you seeing this same acceptance at the Council level? During the recent elections a number of Councilmembers pledged to encourage neighborhood empowerment. Have they truly been as receptive as their pledges would indicate?

Without question the newly elected Councilmembers have taken steps to make sure that their portions of the City are represented, working with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and are staffed at our offices. However, a more important reaction is the one coming from many Councilmembers that have been in office-some of whom initially questioned the necessity of this form of empowerment. These members are now embracing Neighborhood Councils as a positive way to connect to their constituents and are truly seeing Neighborhood Councils as a way to govern more effectively.

Before we conclude, let's go back to your last interview. In that piece you stated your goals as: 1) Establishing a plan for neighborhood councils; 2) Establishing a communications network for neighborhood organizations; 3) Establishing community access centers; and 3) Initiating an early notification system. How have those items progressed?

As I mentioned earlier, the plan and the communication network have both been implemented.

As far as community access centers, we currently have 7 centers across the city and are in negotiations to identify 23 more.

Lastly, the first phase of the early notification system has been completed and all City Commissions, Boards and the City Council Committee agendas are now available to the Neighborhood Councils. Phase two and three will be a bit more challenging because they entail providing communities with the opportunity to have a greater voice in the crafting of an agenda for these bodies, but Mayor Hahn's new plan addresses how to move forward with that.

Let's conclude with this: As you leave the Department, what would you offer as a set of benchmarks that our readers and perhaps your successor could look to so that this overhaul of City governance can continue?

The new City Charter says that the intent of the Neighborhood Councils is "to promote more citizen participation in government and to make government more responsive to local needs." Most people forget the second half of that statement. We need to make sure that the changes are made to government. Remember that this is not just about empowering neighborhoods, but about making government more responsive.

Ultimately it is my belief that Neighborhood Councils will restructure this City's governance and culture. The city has done business in a certain way for a long time and the systems and procedures within our governance structure have been set up to meet the needs of the system, not necessarily the public. That shift represents a total mindset change and is an enormous hurdle to overcome.

Changes to those paradigms are beginning, but it will really take a total reevaluation of city governance to complete the task. Our representatives must begin to look at governance from an entirely different point of view. Their jobs are no longer about keeping the status quo. It is now about finding out what the public wants and making positive change toward addressing those wishes.

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