May 15, 2006 - From the May, 2006 issue

DONE Exit Interview: Greg Nelson Reflects on L.A.'s Venture into Neighborhood Governance

Since their inception in 1999, L.A.'s neighborhood councils have brought city government closer to its residents. While the city's 88 councils vary wildly in their composition, personalities, and agendas, Greg Nelson, former director of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, has provided the one constant point of contact to help the councils fulfill their missions. TPR was pleased to speak with Mr. Nelson on the occasion of his retirement from DONE.


Greg Nelson

Neighborhood councils arose as a result of L.A. City Charter reform to give local residents a greater sense of ownership in their neighborhoods and the decisions that affect them. Five years have passed; has the promise been realized?

There was also a second part of that promise. The first few words of the city charter say that the goal is to promote greater public participation in government. On both counts, yes, it has succeeded and there is a lot of evidence that it has. The good people at USC's Neighborhood Participation Project are completing another survey to update one they did a few years ago and that's also, I think, going to help answer those questions. I am really happy with what has happened.

Many people think that you have perhaps the most thankless job in all of city government. How have you learned to juggle the needs, desires, and demands of over 80 neighborhood councils with the institutions, culture, and processes of the city?

The first thing is realizing that this isn't about life or death. I'm not the person at the 911 call center and every time I pick up the phone every piece of advice I give is critically important. We have a huge margin for error. But the main way that I have been able to do this is that this is my passion. It's also a matter of keeping everything in perspective and realizing that there are so many voices out there and so many different opinions, and they all need to be respected.

What benchmarks have emerged to characterize an "effective" neighborhood council? What leads to a council being relatively less effective, or even dysfunctional?

There are three main features. First, they need good leadership at the top. When neighborhood councils have gone bad, it's usually because of the leadership, meaning the president or the chair. Second, neighborhood councils must reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods. If they are all businesspeople or all homeowners, they lose their effectiveness and credibility. Then the third element is their ability to be relevant to the people in their area.

I was talking last night to some City Hall folks who asked, "Hey, how many people showed up to the city council meeting in Van Nuys the other day?" The answer was 50, if you were lucky, and they were predominantly city employees. The reason, of course, was that nothing on the agenda was relevant to people. So that's what I tell neighborhood councils: they have to be relevant in what they do.

In response to reported jurisdictional problems, reforms have been proposed that would make neighborhood councils' boundaries be coterminous with other jurisdictional boundaries: city council, school district, service areas within the city, etc. Have you witnessed problems? Is boundary reform needed?

Present boundaries have worked out very well, because the first order of business for the neighborhood council is to maintain good communication with the people who live, work, and own property in their area. So giving the neighborhood councils the ability to design their own boundaries ensured that they were effective. The second priority was to communicate with the different levels of government. The designers of this system hoped that government would readjust to the neighborhood councils. And we've seen that, I think, in the design of the area planning commission boundaries.

Those lines were drawn by the communities, and they line up well with the neighborhood council boundaries. Councilman Dennis Zine has a motion in right now in committee that says when city council does the next reapportionment, it should try to the greatest extent possible to design the council and school board boundaries with an eye towards the neighborhood council boundaries. I don't think that's going to carry a lot of weight, but he is making a point.

How difficult has it been for the councilmembers, general managers, and other people responsible for the delivery of city services to adjust to the neighborhood councils?

It really hasn't been a problem at all. Back in the conceptual stage I was talking to some people from Birmingham, Alabama-which is one of the model cities that had been studied in the early days-I asked, "how difficult is it that you are in two different city council districts?" And he said, "no problem at all; in fact it is great because if one council member doesn't do what we want, we just go to the other one." In fact, that discussion came up last night with some of these City Hall people I was talking to because one neighborhood council was grousing that there are two neighborhood council members representing them, but we ended up agreeing that it was probably beneficial.

No other city in the United States of Los Angeles' size employs a neighborhood council form of government. As your five years at DONE conclude, does the design and organization of DONE need to be tweaked in order to make the councils more effective?

The 1999 charter mandates a review by an independent commission seven years after the charter's initial adoption. So, yes, everyone knew that it was going to be tweaked along the way. And everyone knew that after seven years that would be a really good time to review the whole system. In fact, Councilman Padilla recently put together a pretty complete draft to design this committee and the scope of its work. That will be in the City Council shortly. So, the answer is "yes," and that's what they're going to be talking about: can we tweak, can we improve, or should we completely dismantle the whole system?

What recommendations would you make as the city council considers improvements and amendments to the neighborhood council charter?

I haven't solidified all those thoughts because I need to talk to some other people first, because I really want to see if I can get the commission off to a bit of a flying start. I am concerned that the commissioners and the staff itself may find themselves quite overwhelmed by having to back through the two years of work from those two charter reform commissions and have to understand the issues and the reasoning back then.

I think that the area that needs the greatest improvement may be the one that is legally the most difficult to do, and that is that the plan for a citywide system of neighborhood councils, which says that the councils should be as independent as possible from City Hall. But, when we realized that certain state laws apply-such as the Brown Act–that ability to be independent became extremely difficult.

As the priorities and agendas of the 80 neighborhood councils have evolved, many have moved into land use. But the area planning commissions that were created in the same charter were meant to have that as their jurisdiction. Can you articulate what the jurisdiction of the neighborhood councils is now, what it was intended to be, and what its relationship ought to be with the area planning commissions?

The drafters of the charter realized that if empowerment was going to mean something, it had to at least mean that neighborhood councils could determine their own agendas. Some neighborhood councils will only talk about local issues and not about citywide issues, and we have others that are the exact opposite and want to talk about global issues. But that's their choice.

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But it was clear to me and clear to most others that planning and land use would be a major focus, because the community always has a lot to say about planning and land use issues. Remember, the neighborhood councils only advise on those land use issues. The area planning commissions make the decisions. The neighborhood councils hold accountable the city council members, the planning commission, the area planning commissioners, and all those people that are formally part of the system.

Share a typical neighborhood council meeting agenda.

Most neighborhood councils spend a large part of their time on planning and land use. Number two will be the administrative issues: How do we divide ourselves into committees, how do we get work done in an efficient manner? How do we run our meetings? How do we get the staff work done? Unlike an area planning commission or department of transportation, neighborhood councils don't have staff. They have to figure out how to get that basic work done. They are also very conscious of community beautification; a lot of them invest a lot of time and money in tree planting and landscaping.

They are also required by law to communicate regularly with their stakeholders, so quite a few of them have websites; they publish newsletters, and they are working hard to make sure that they communicate with their stakeholders.

Who is the typical neighborhood council representative that has the time and financial wherewithal to serve?

The financial wherewithal comes from the $50,000 a year that the city contributes. As the system has evolved, we and various neighborhood council leaders have found economical and efficient ways of communicating: the ability to produce newsletters, to send them out using low rates at the post office, or using community youth groups to distribute them, the ability to produce websites and have email list serves. We bring together all the neighborhood councils and we share all these best practices, and there is a tremendous amount of creativity and technical knowledge among the 1,600 council members.

It's hard to describe a typical profile because they are all over the map. There are extremes on each end. No extreme is greater probably than what exists in the Downtown Los Angeles neighborhood council, which includes everyone from representatives of the Central City Association to a homeless person, who has a dedicated seat. And it is those extremes that I think make the system so vibrant.

One critique of neighborhood councils is that they are susceptible to influence by lobbyists and narrow interest groups, which could help staff and finance the work of those groups in order to have a pipeline into the city council through the neighborhood councils. How realistic is this concern?

There is some of that, but neighborhood councils are like small towns: everyone knows what everyone does for a living. Everyone knows what each person's business is. I remember one neighborhood council asking me, "Are we allowed to have a registered lobbyist on our neighborhood council board?" And I said, "of course you are," and in fact, to me that would be a big plus. I would love to have someone on my board with that kind of political acumen. It would be difficult for the lobbyist to pursue a client's agenda because everyone knows the lobbyist, everyone knows who the clients are. I have seen that, but I haven't seen it become a detriment yet.

As you leave this role with DONE and you leave a note in your desk for your successor, what's in that note?

I'm going to stress the need to ensure that the neighborhood councils are allowed to be as independent as possible, that they are allowed to do three things: determine their own agendas, choose their own boundaries, which has been pretty much been settled, and number three, to determine how they elect or select their own leaders. Some of these issues are going to be raised as we get closer to this neighborhood council review commission and those are some of the basic principles that I think need to be remembered.

You're really not going to tell them about the internal political pressures and the calls you get in the middle of the night and how to handle them?

Sure, but you asked me what was the one thing, and I gave you three. How to handle that is going to be something that will be part of the briefing. When the mayor picks the successor, I'll come back from wherever I am and spend all the time that the new person needs to understand the pitfalls and what I've learned.

What's the next step for the neighborhood council system as citywide institution?

Ever since it was first envisioned by Councilman Joel Wachs and myself and later by the charter reform commissioners, we wanted the Congress of Neighborhoods, which is an event that we hold twice a year, to evolve into an opportunity for leaders of neighborhood councils to get together and talk about the things that divide them and to try to find agreement on the things that will bring them together. I see that as something that is coming in the future, and I think that that is going to be a big turning point in the evolution of neighborhood councils.

I think that will provide an the antidote to NIMBYism because if the neighborhood councils were able to separate this stuff – let's say, a burning planning and land use issue – you would probably get 88 different, narrow points of view. But if you make them discuss "OK, what's the citywide solution to this," then you get something I think that couldn't be labeled NIMBYism.

Isn't that what we have a city council for?

Yes, but, again, the whole idea of participatory democracy is that someone needs to hold elected officials accountable more than once every four years. And if you believe, as some of those old city council members did, "hey, I'm elected and if you don't like it, you can un-elect me every four years, " and, "I make the decisions; I don't need to hear from the public," then you don't need this neighborhood council system. But the feeling was, that getting people more involved in government and holding elected officials accountable on a daily basis is good.

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