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Neighborhood Councils: Are They What L.A. Really Needs?

May 25, 1997|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press.)

The campaigns for the Charter Reform Commission are getting out of hand. Candidates in the June 3 runoff elections are promising more self-rule, in the form of neighborhood councils, than they can ever reasonably deliver. It's time to think seriously about what these councils can and can't do before the two charter commissions meet to rewrite the city's governing document.

Ever since San Fernando Valley secessionists inspired the latest quest to overhaul the charter, calls for neighborhood control have been heard from one end of the city to the other. But no one has explained what they mean. Is it a call for another layer of government, one closer to residents? Would neighborhood councils be political mechanisms to give voice to old grievances or new leaders? Or would they be a means of incorporating different ethnic communities into the city, the way the old party machine did for an earlier generation of immigrants?

It seems that the idea of neighborhood control, exercised through local councils, means all things to all people--and to all candidates. What's clear is the driving force behind it.

"I want a sense of community," said a young woman last year at a conference on the quality of life in Los Angeles. "I can't decide whether to stay in Los Angeles or move to Nashville." Her desire was echoed by others in the conference room. Neighborhood control is being billed as the way to build her community.

The changing nature of the city's population has thrust the issue of community into sharp relief. The old Anglo-Saxon, Protestant middle class that came out of the Midwest and settled in and remade Los Angeles in their own image knew their neighbors were just like them. They knew it would stay that way, too, because of the covenants requiring homeowners to sell to buyers who were just like them. When the courts held that such covenants violated the Constitution, and when immigration laws opened U.S. borders to populations coming from more communal societies, the issue of community became more pressing.

Then there is the loss of confidence in the traditional political structure. The passion for neighborhood councils does not simply reflect the deeper desire for community; it is also a rejection of politics as we know it--a city government that seems distant, unresponsive, even hostile at times.

Desire for community and anger at government can co-exist--until a solution is required. If these neighborhood councils evolve into another layer of governmental decision-making, they may turn out to be just as frustrating as City Hall, but with a difference: Most participants will know each other fairly well. Things could get ugly.

And if the councils turn out to be another level of government, how will we ever move toward a sense of belonging to one city? Or to a region? While almost everyone agrees that regionalism is a good idea, trying to get there is like trying to unify Europe. No one wants to give up their identity, to say nothing of their authority. Adding another level of authority in the guise of neighborhood councils is probably going in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, if neighborhood councils were political bodies, bodies without legal authority, it might be easier to develop a regional perspective. Groups that share a common vision could more easily cross traditional boundaries and form new alliances. Advocates of survivable communities, for instance, worry about air quality and saving energy. They can and do work cooperatively, regardless of governmental authorities. If you worry about rivers and open spaces, your horizon is broader than those who worry only about their own turf.

After June 3, there will be two charter-reform commissions, one elected, the other appointed by the City Council. When the two get down to work, they need to think creatively about what is the best form of government for Los Angeles. They may even want to experiment. Charter reform will take two years, and that time should be used to try out different kinds of neighborhood councils. Maybe one will fit.

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