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Don't Let the Establishment Define Neighborhood Councils

September 24, 2000|Xandra Kayden and Stewart Kwoh | 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. Stewart Kwoh is president and executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment has issued a first draft of its proposal to create neighborhood councils throughout the city. There will be several months of hearings before the Neighborhood Empowerment Commission approves a plan, which will then go to the City Council. After another six months of deliberations, the neighborhood councils envisioned in the new charter will come into being. But it would be a mistake for everyone else to wait till then before talking to each other and city agencies about this new institution.

The opportunity to create neighborhood councils came about because of Mayor Richard Riordan's commitment to reform the charter--and give himself more power. But odds are that the new charter won't matter much if the idea of neighborhood councils flounders and sections of the city pursue secession. In that case, Riordan's legacy will be the last mayor of Los Angeles as we know it.

For most L.A. residents weary of an unresponsive and distant city government, the future revolves around two choices: secession, which would create smaller cities, and neighborhood councils, which might foster the sense of community that people seem to want. While the earliest vote on secession is at least two years away, the success of neighborhood councils will depend on local organizations and individuals thinking about what they want their communities to be and how they want them to participate in the larger metropolis. If they don't start now, the councils won't be ready for certification, and the opportunity to improve city services and community spirit will be lost.

With the exception of such organizations as the 8th District Empowerment Congress and the Pacific Palisades Community Council, which already operate like neighborhood councils, new councils will not be operational until next summer, when the City Council approves a plan for the operation of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Those that will be recognized will know who their major stakeholders are, have a sense of their boundaries and some form of governance. They will have met with a wide spectrum of groups within their communities: homeowners and renters, businesses, religious and educational institutions, nonprofit groups and so on.

While details of how neighborhood councils will relate to the city and each other will come forth slowly, the main outline for creating them is clear enough in the charter to start the process now. There is, for instance, a draft plan for a Hollywood Neighborhood Council, which includes a mission statement, a proposed governmental structure and an agenda. South Robertson and Venice also have been actively sorting out their issues.

Communities are more than homeowner associations, the one institution that has seriously begun thinking about the potential of neighborhood councils. They include nonprofit organizations that provide the glue that keeps communities culturally, socially and physically healthy: churches, synagogues, schools, civic organizations and ethnic groups. Since neighborhood councils are defined by community lines, not council-district boundaries, they could be effective voices at every level of government, from county to federal. Every elected official and government agency providing services within its precincts will have to be responsive to the neighborhood council. True, the councils are advisory in nature, but the voice they speak can be politically powerful.

Neighborhood councils are no more ideal than any other political structure. They are, however, the closest thing we have to an infrastructure that could bring individuals and interests together. They are a vehicle to define issues and to build coalitions that transcend geographic, ethnic and class boundaries. They can give voice to those who have none in Los Angeles, and they can give government the opportunity to connect to residents in ways it has not been able to. All the more reason not to wait until the political establishment defines their potential.

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