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Valley Perspective

Lessons From the Neighborhood Enfranchisement Front

Decision-making power rightly rests with the elected, but the volunteer committee process is an effective way to involve people involved in government.

April 26, 1998|AMANDA F. SUSKIND | Amanda F. Suskind is a Los Angeles attorney

The city of Los Angeles is finally waking up to the realization that local community involvement in government decision making works.

With competing efforts to revise the City Charter and San Fernando Valley residents clamoring to secede, the city is facing increasing criticism that its current governance doesn't work. Local advocates complain that decisions made downtown have little relevance to neighborhood concerns.

Optimists cite apathy as evidence people don't like the status quo. But the real reason people don't get involved is that they don't think they can make a difference. So all eyes are on any effort the city makes to enfranchise neighborhoods.

One recent effort bears note. At the beginning of the year, the City Council appointed three volunteer neighborhood oversight committees to provide recommendations on the expenditures of $25 million a year for parks and recreation improvements in the central, southern and northern regions of the city.

In all, the committees were composed of 30 volunteers (two from each council district). I was appointed by Councilman Mike Feuer to the central committee and wound up being chair of that group. The experience provided some lessons about what works and what doesn't.

This public participation was mandated by Proposition K, approved by the voters in November 1996. It took more than a year for the City Council to find and appoint people willing to serve and for the city staff to gather bids and rate proposed projects for feasibility and readiness.

The steps took too long. The first meeting of the committees was Jan. 12, and we were expected to make final recommendations by Jan. 22.

In that 10-day period, the committees had to prioritize more than 180 projects (worth $400 million) in line for $20 million a year and more than 100 projects (worth $122 million) competing for an additional $15 million for three years. The committees were inundated with paper and had no time to absorb the information, let alone tour the project sites, talk to project sponsors or hear from advocates and opponents. But we got the job done by Jan. 22.

Our short turnaround was especially frustrating because after we were done, staff did not finalize its recommendations until late March.

The biggest criticism came from unsuccessful bidders. They blamed the volunteers for recommending awards based on perceived need and for treating all qualified proposals equally. The bidders also objected to the lack of opportunity for input with the volunteer committees, a criticism shared by somecommittee members.

So why was I so happy to be a part of this? The very fact the process took place indicates that the city is on the right track.

My committee was composed of people with extraordinary commitment. We each put our own neighborhood's priorities in play but then stepped back and compromised to ensure fair distribution of funds around the area, even prioritizing regional projects, such as the Griffith Observatory's much needed upgrade, over parochial needs.

In one case, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy requested $5.5 million to acquire 1,525 acres (the Eastport property) and $5 million to acquire 239 acres (Mandeville Canyon Estates) in the Santa Monica Mountains. With only $5 million to spend in each year, these requests alone would consume the entire allocations for competitive grant funds for two years. On the other hand, the proponents pointed out that the acquisitions would benefit the entire city and might never again be available at these prices.

In the end, the volunteer committees unanimously agreed to recommend the acquisitions. But the recommendation was conditioned on the City Council issuing bonds and paying for the acquisitions over time rather than all at once. In this way, we were able to support an important regional project while maintaining a yearly funding source for smaller, and undeniably much needed neighborhood projects. The decision on whether to issue the bonds is left now to the elected City Council and, in my view, that is where it should be.

The popular trend toward distrust of government would suggest that, ideally, such committees would themselves be the decision makers. I think that goes too far. After all, the neighborhood councils' perspective is inherently parochial. The decision makers, in contrast, should be people with a more global awareness.

Ultimate veto power by elected officials may conjure images of making the process political and subject to the unnatural influence of special-interest groups. But in truth, elected officials are the most accountable to the public and should be afforded the public trust that got them elected in the first place.

The volunteer committee process was meaningful if a little overwhelming. Recommendations were based on real people's real experiences of the neighborhoods in which they live, people who for the most part had no agenda but to help. Most of the recommendations were adopted by the city staff and will be recommended by the council.

This was the perfect role for volunteers, not so much in the administration of the city and its myriad daily decisions ranging from public works to personnel decisions, but in the prioritizing of projects of palpable and direct benefit to the people.

This is the wave of the future. With a little tinkering (start sooner, leave time for follow-through), this kind of community involvement could do a lot to increase constituent confidence and, in the long run, even voter participation.

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