June 1, 2003 - From the June, 2003 issue

Greg Nelson On L.A.'s Neighborhood Councils: An Evolving, Untested Experiment In Governance

TPR recently caught up with Greg Nelson, General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, responsible for creating, nurturing and supporting neighborhood councils throughout the city. In this interview, Nelson provides an update on the development of neighborhood councils and addresses the evolving structure within which neighborhood councils will participate in citywide decision making.

In September, 2001 TPR interviewed Rosalyn Stewart, your predecessor, and she said she expected it would take 10-15 years to cover the city with neighborhood councils. Today there are 59 neighborhood councils already certified and many are expecting the city to be completely covered by 2004. What have you done to speed up and change the process in so short a time?

No one told me it was going to take that long. As soon as I got the job, we just started focusing all of our efforts towards processing the applications we had received in a timely way. As a result of this effort to certify people in a timely manner, we have been unable to get a whole lot of other work done. I remember Mayor Riordan's budget anticipated that by June 30th of last year we were supposed to have 10 to 15 neighborhood councils certified; we ended up with 36.

How will the departments and council districts be able to productively interact with such a large number of neighborhood councils? What concrete steps have they been able to take to work the neighborhood councils need to know into their decision making process?

In a participatory democracy, it cannot be spelled out on a piece of paper just how that's going to work. I explain to neighborhood councils that when they get certified that doesn't get them any automatic power or give them any credibility -- they have to earn it. The real power is not given, it's taken. I point to the fact that some of the people who are most influential in how governmental decisions are the lobbyists and city employee unions. No on gave them any power at all. Everything that they got they took. That's real power -- and we advise the neighborhood councils to function the same way.

One of the keys to influencing decision making is to develop a working relationship with the elected officials. And, each council member has a different way of how they interact with the neighborhood councils. For instance, Councilman Zine tells developers first to take all of their projects to the neighborhood councils to get some feedback. Other council members just do that on a select basis.

At a recent Congress of Neighborhood Councils, there was a much talk about the councils wanting to band together to increase their power because, in the end, they are only advisory according to the city charter. What steps are you taking to meet their expectations? What is your department doing to mitigate their frustrated with the fact that they're not designed to replace the decision making of the City Council?

One of the terms I try to avoid using is to say that neighborhood councils are "just advisory" because, of course, the most powerful lobbyists in the city are just advisory. Some of them do have expectations that once they get certified everyone at City Hall or every elected official will pay attention to them. I have to manage their expectations by reminding them that they have to earn all of the credibility and all of the respect. You don't automatically get anything from being a neighborhood council member.

Aside from having good relationships with the elected officials, the councils need to do two other things. One, they have to ensure that they truly represent the diversity of your area. If you're only the property owners of the area or you're only the chamber of commerce, no elected official will take you very seriously because they will know that you aren't speaking for the entire neighborhood.

Second, the neighborhood councils need to communicate effectively with their stakeholders. The city charter requires that neighborhood councils communicate regularly with all stakeholders. The ability to print newsletters twice or three times a year and send them to all the stakeholders is extremely powerful. In those newsletters, they can talk about the elected officials, who was approached for help and who was responsive. And, since written material like that is what elected officials send out at election time, you can see how powerful a report from people in the area about their elected officials can be.

Assuming neighborhood councils take some power from and exert more influence over city decision makers, how by design will the City keep them from becoming simply a parochial interest group fueled by NIMBYism? How do you assure a role for regional input and system compromise?

This question circles back to diversity. If you have governing boards that include the business community, renters, the ethnic community, homeowners, youth and seniors, you probably won't represent NIMBYism. A representative council probably will advance a balanced approach to issues or you'll see a board so split that they can't take a position. However, if a neighborhood council simply listens to project presentations and votes no on everything, the city council office will recognize that and pay less heed to the resolutions coming from the neighborhood council.

Many of those who are knowledgeable of government have not been so much against neighborhood involvement as they are concerned about the lack of any connection between the neighborhood councils and the ways the city is managed and governed. That is, neighborhood councils, as they currently are designed, constitute an untethered reform that can only cause mischief over time because they are not integrated into the fabric of the city government. Is that a misplaced concern?

At this point, I can understand why people have that concern. I've been talking directly with the mayor's office about how we can institutionalize what that relationship is going to be, especially as it relates to the development of the city budget. The Mayor sincerely wants to have neighborhood councils share power and be involved in the budget process, which is a completely foreign concept based on past practice.

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You're going to see it written out clearly about how neighborhood councils will be brought into the governing system. Of course, this is a participatory democracy and anyone can get involved in the system in any way they want. But, the neighborhood councils will be invited and incorporated into the process in very specific ways, including the design of the city budget.

Many critics of L.A.'s neighborhood council plan much preferred the Hertzberg boroughs proposal because it tried to integrate by design school districts, government services and sub-regional boroughs so that a structural equilibrium existed between officials and organizations that represent residents and the service needs of the entire city/region. The councils certainly offer involvement opportunities. But the policy concern is that they are not well designed to create constructive & balanced involvement. What's your view of such criticism?

My viewpoint, and the viewpoint of other people that promote participatory democracy, is that these councils are needed in the city today and they would be needed in the city even if we had a borough system. As long as you have decision-makers at City Hall, whether they're city council members or borough members, planning commissioners, or whomever, someone has to hold those people accountable for the decisions they make.

In cities such as St. Paul and Portland, Oregon they went neighborhood, but they also went regional at the same time. Many people are concerned that the political dynamic set up by the neighborhood councils has the opposite effect-pulling the politics to the neighborhoods despite many of the City's management responsibilities being more regional. Do you believe the councils will distract elected officials from regional decision-making necessary for the basin to prosper?

No, this was considered when the whole system was being put together. In fact, before the city charter was drafted, there was a proposal that Councilman Wachs and I put together that would have created a multi-layered neighborhood council system like the one we see in other cities. But what's happening right now is that Mayor Hahn, through the Teamwork LA project started right around the Christmas time, is already beginning to put together the leaders of neighborhood councils for the seven different parts of the cities so they can begin looking at area-wide issues.

But let's be fair, that's different from the regional governance structures in St. Paul and in Portland. In terms of the governmental design created in the last charter reform, isn't it weakening our capacity to deal with the regional infrastructure challenges that face this metropolitan region?

Well, recent meetings with the Mayor's budget team suggest that this new process for how neighborhood councils will impact the budget may be structured around the seven area planning commission regions more so than through the individual neighborhood councils. In our meeting, we discussed how a lot of what goes into the budget is something that deserves more of a regional viewpoint, going beyond just what an individual neighborhood feels it needs for its area. So, the structure by which neighborhood councils will influence the budget process is likely to be more regionally oriented. That's one example of how the councils can be organized to function in a system that looks outside of their particular jurisdiction.

How will we know when the neighborhood council system has arrived? How should we measure the success of the program?

I've gone around the country asking people in other cities with neighborhood councils how they benchmark the success of the system. To date, I don't know of any city that has a system to evaluate the program's success. I've asked people here. USC tried to get a grant to begin figuring that out, they haven't done it.

People have parts of it, people have guesses. Some suggest counting how many vote in elections every year, because the primary goal of this is to increase public participation in government. Others think it might be how many people show up for meetings. In fact, I'd like to throw the challenge out there to whoever is going to be reading this to come up with some idea of how we can get that answer. At some point a few years down the line, someone is going to want to determine if this whole system has been successful or not. And we just don't know what the criteria are to measure our success. If the appropriate criteria only can be measured on an ongoing basis-like surveying people to see how they feel about their government or to whom they turn with a problem-those kinds of things would have to be measured now and we don't have a baseline. So there's a challenge to the readers.

One of the things that I was really hoping might happen some day is the creation of what we call "neighborhood action plans." This is an idea that we got from Minneapolis, where they sit down and they make up a solid list of programs and projects that they'd like to have in their neighborhood. It should resemble the capital improvement lists developed by the city departments. I've got a feeling that someday, if the neighborhood councils did this and they all had a list of the projects that they wanted, we may see something the city has never seen before-neighborhood councils taking the initiative to propose a bond measure. If the neighborhood councils themselves identified a list of projects and are willing to tax themselves through a bond measure to pay for the list, can you imagine the impact? Now. you'd have a built-in support group. Perhaps that's a measure of success, seeing something like that coming from the grass roots. I'd love to see that some day.

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