July 31, 2011 - From the July, 2011 issue

L.A. Councilmember Krekorian Proposes Reforms to Neighborhood Council System

As the chair of the Education and Neighborhoods Committee and a member of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, Councilmember Paul Krekorian is uniquely situated at the intersection of City Hall power and the public interest. Given his access to the issues of planning from both sides of the pulpit, TPR is pleased to present the following interview with Councilmember Krekorian, who this month made news by proposing a package of reforms for the Neighborhood Council system and by pushing back on a plan to build an NFL stadium in Downtown.


Paul Krekorian

The city of Los Angeles' neighborhood council process is under review by the City Council. You recently put forward four motions to reform neighborhood councils. What inspired your reforms?

Over the course of the last year and a half that I've chaired the Education and Neighborhoods Committee, we've worked hard to do the broadest possible outreach to the stakeholders involved in the neighborhood council movement to determine how we can make this grassroots empowerment movement more effective and ensure a high degree of accountability.

About ten years into this, the neighborhood council movement has evolved. When it began, it was an effort to organize communities and give them a voice. Now, a decade into the process, we have 95 organized neighborhood councils throughout the city. We have passed the point of launching a new experiment in neighborhood democracy. We're now at a point of figuring out how to make the vibrant, robust neighborhood council process even better.

The review process that we've engaged in over the last year and a half has been a process of listening to those engaged in neighborhood councils to figure out: What are the biggest obstacles to getting things done? What are the biggest deficiencies that the representatives of neighborhoods notice in the current system, both in the operation of the neighborhood councils and in the administration of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE)?

My motions address the four clusters of issues that we found often during the outreach process. First is the need for more training among neighborhood council board members in a variety of different areas, as specified by the motion. The second is the need to improve the neighborhood council funding program, which is a huge headache for people trying to do good things for the neighborhood through the neighborhood councils and also a huge potential vulnerability to accountability in the system. That is why we're working to develop a system that is easier to use and, at the same time, that provides a greater degree of security to the taxpayers of the city.

Third, we proposed a restructuring of the oversight and administration of the neighborhood councils to devolve many of the responsibilities that had been preformed by DONE to the neighborhood councils themselves through a system of alliances and regionalization. The idea there is that high-performing neighborhood councils can assist those that aren't as high performing. We can take into account regional differences in the city and achieve more self-governance through the alliances, at a time when we're cutting back significantly on the expenditures that support the department.

Finally, many of the neighborhood councils have struggled with how to deal with grievances, which often create great conflict within a community. Through these motions, we're trying to develop a more streamlined and more predictable way of resolving those grievances.

L.A. is a city of more than 400 square miles and 3.7 million people, where over 100 languages are spoken in hundreds of neighborhoods. Clearly, the representation of such a diverse and large city is a challenge. Has L.A.'s current neighborhood council system, where individuals are elected to their local boards with sometimes less than 100 votes, met public expectations? Is local government now more responsive to local concerns?

There's almost unanimous agreement that the city and the neighborhood councils need to do a better job of outreach to increase engagement. One of the big impediments to that in the last election cycle was the fact that money had to be spent to have the city clerk operate and manage the elections that could have otherwise been spent on outreach to increase involvement.

I'd like to have a greater degree of engagement with the public, more education of the public about the neighborhood council system, more outreach to encourage involvement, and more organizing to engage community members. As that happens, and as we see tangible results, we'll continue to have success and grow.

The reason we have gone from zero neighborhood councils to 95 is that neighborhoods and communities see value in this. They see that it's important to have a voice in City Hall, and neighborhood councils provide that voice.

You're right about turnout not being what we would hope. We could say that that's true in City Council elections, mayoral elections, and even presidential elections. We need to do a better job of outreach at every level of democracy.

In 2001, TPR interviewed the former head of DONE, Roslynn Stewart. Her concluding comment in that interview was that city governance needed a total reevaluation: "The purpose of neighborhood councils was originally to promote more citizen participation in government and to make government more responsive to local needs." Given the benchmark for success that Roslynn Stewart set out, how well has Los Angeles experiment with neighborhood councils done?

Not well enough. The good news is that I am encouraged by the fact that 95 communities have chosen to engage in community democracy and have organized neighborhood councils. I'm still not pleased that neighborhood councils have not had the voice that they should in actual governance decisions in this city.

There is a strong sense among almost all neighborhood councils that despite their advocacy for their communities, despite their volunteerism, and despite the passion and energy that they bring to this city, too often the power structure of the city neglects to take their views into account. Since I was elected, I've tried very hard to change that. We've made progress, but we still have quite a long way to go.

What is your reaction to the city's recent adoption of development reforms, first advanced by Deputy Mayor Beutner and now by the Planning Department and the Department of Building and Safety? Given that these reforms are intended to fast-track projects through city processes, are the reforms consistent with a robust neighborhood council system?

First of all, I take a little issue with the phrase "fast-track projects." Everyone agrees we need to fast-track the process. At the end of that process, we won't necessarily expedite getting to "yes." We might also expedite getting to "no." The arbitrariness and inefficiency of the process aggravates developers, communities, and just about everybody. Business people and developers would rather have a fast "no" than a long, delayed "yes."

We need to make a simpler, faster, and more efficient system, yet we can't abandon our commitment to protecting the environment, protecting communities, maintaining consistency with an overall vision for the growth and development of this city, and preventing adverse impacts on the city's infrastructure and its ability to accommodate growth. What frustrates me, and many others, is when bureaucracy, seemingly for its own sake, slows things down and causes arbitrariness and inefficiency. That is the driving force behind development reform.

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Can there be true development reform without the funding and the promulgation of inclusive community plans, which would filter by-right projects out from projects that need to be reconciled with long-range plans?

We can make some improvements right now. From what I've seen, there is an effort to streamline what we can now. Unfortunately, most of the heavy lifting of this effort is going to require additional funding, for example, to create uniformity in the computer systems used by the various departments. As you pointed out, updating community plans and specific plans will take substantial investment, which we're not able to make right now.

But the city's community plans are self-funded by applicants for review and not by general taxes. Why has the city's Planning Department delayed in producing these plans?

The problem is that the Planning Department has been engaged in these processes but has also been decimated, as have most of our departments. Right now, they are basically able to handle cases and not a lot more than that. Primarily, it's a question of not enough people to handle the project of reforming and updating those plans.

TPR recently asked L.A. Planning Commissioner Mike Woo if "real planning" of the kind that got promulgated by Jane Usher two years ago was taking place in the city-to which he replied: "A continuing flaw in our planning process is our failure to consistently import these ‘real planning' principles into the day-to-day work of the planning process, which sometimes leaves the impression with the public that we're being selective or that we're making choices about when to apply these principles and when not to." Did he get it right? Is there a way for PLUM to correct that impression?

There is a perception among the public that there is some arbitrariness to the city's planning decisions. He is not wrong about that perception.

I hope that a lot of that perception will be addressed as we move forward with improvements to the development process. A lot of the arbitrariness comes from the fact that there are so many hoops to go through, not just in the Planning Department but throughout the city bureaucracy, so what ends up at the other end of the pipeline is not always as predictable as it could be if this process were streamlined and efficient.

Turning to AEG's proposal for an NFL stadium in Downtown Los Angeles, it seems to be a perfect example of a development swiftly moving through the planning process. Is the AEG review process the model for how development reform will work in the future?

It's certainly not my model. This has been an extraordinary exercise that has relied on extraordinary measures by the City Council, including the creation of an ad-hoc committee. I've been one of the leading voices in saying that this is the kind of impactful decision that shouldn't be fast-tracked to "yes." It should be a project that is evaluated to the greatest degree possible to ensure that we get it right. Whether it's "yes" or "no," this is a project that could have very significant ramifications for the General Fund, for the face of Downtown, for the environment, and for the development of jobs. If we don't get it right, we could pay the consequences of this decision for the next half-century.

I've been saying that this is not the time to expedite things to get this done if it means forsaking our ability to make sure that we get it done right.

TPR last interviewed you on your 100th day in office, when the city was faced with the challenges of balancing a budget that had much less revenue than anticipated. What does the current budget reflect in the way of public priorities, and are you satisfied that the city has turned a corner financially?

I'm hopeful that the city, the state, and the federal governments will soon turn a corner, but I can't say that I'm satisfied or confident that we are turning a corner. There are positive indicators in the overall economy that I hope suggest that revenues will start to recover. For now, we can't rely on that. We can hope, but we certainly can't rely on an economic turnaround in the short term.

The council has taken initial, painful steps toward paring back government expenditures. This is not what anybody wants to do when they go into public service. But the exercise of having to do it has focused us on the core functions of the city. It is certainly not an exercise that I take any pleasure in or that I am proud of. It's something that we have to do, given the limitations of the moment.

I hope that as we go through this process, we will focus on most efficiently funding the essential services that this city needs to provide for citizens. We'll also focus on making the city more business friendly and creating jobs that will increase revenues. If we do those two things well, as the economy does start to turn around, we will have laid a foundation for a much more positive future in a city that operates much more effectively. It's essential that we seize the opportunity to get it right. If we don't create efficiencies, we'll be back in the same boat soon enough as the economy fluctuates.

Now is the time for us to make the kind of structural changes that we need to make this city operate effectively and efficiently. When the economy recovers, we'll be able to rebuild in a much more positive way.

A number of people have said that because of your skills, background, and integrity you might be a fine candidate for city attorney. Has that crossed your mind?

I just got reelected to the City Council, and I'm very happy that the people have entrusted me to do this work. I'm trying to focus my attention right now on being the best councilmember that I can.

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