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Noise in the 'hood

Neighborhood councils are forcing City Hall to finally pay attention to the `little guy.'

September 18, 2006|Jason Lyon and Jeff Jacobberger | JASON LYON and JEFF JACOBBERGER serve on the city of Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Review Commission. Lyon is a member of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, and Jacobberger serves on the Mid-City West Community Council.

LOS ANGELES' system of grass-roots neighborhood empowerment, long ignored by the media and too often undiscovered by the public, has flexed new muscle this summer as an important brake on government power.

On Aug. 31, Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien agreed with a coalition of neighborhood council members that the wording of Measure R, the half-baked ballot initiative to extend City Council term limits and weaken lobbyist restrictions, was misleading. Council members cleverly titled the measure, "Councilmember Term Limits of Three Terms." Almost sounds like they're creating term limits, rather than extending them, doesn't it?

In changing Measure R's title to the more accurate "Lengthening Councilmember Term Limits," as originally suggested by the city attorney, Judge O'Brien handed our diverse band of neighborhood council Davids a powerful victory over the insular Goliaths of City Hall.

Goliath isn't dead yet, though. The city appealed the ruling, and the misleading language was restored on a technicality. But the neighborhood councils' action exposed the City Council's sleight of hand for all to see.

City Hall is now on notice: Its actions are being watched and, when necessary, challenged.

Neighborhood councils were created by the new City Charter, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 1999. Unlike other government bodies, they are open to participation by anyone who lives, works or owns property in the neighborhood. Their purpose is to promote public participation and make government more responsive to local needs, to give the "little guy" as much pull in City Hall as the special interests.

The charter guarantees councils "a reasonable opportunity to provide input before decisions are made."

Not surprisingly, the 86 neighborhood councils currently certified often disagree with city officials on the definition of the word "reasonable." The councils are governed by elected, unpaid boards that generally meet once a month, with smaller volunteer committees studying issues between meetings, so they can't exactly move at lightening speed.

The Measure R flap isn't the first time councils have cried foul when City Hall tried to jam something through without public oversight. In 2003, the Department of Water and Power asked the City Council just before the holidays to raise residential water rates by 18% over two years. They apparently hoped for approval before New Year's hangovers cleared up. That's probably how it would have gone down in years past.

But this time, the neighborhood councils demanded their reasonable opportunity to review the proposal. When it became clear the DWP couldn't justify the broad rate hike, we called for independent verification of the need for further increases. Acknowledging our pressure, the City Council approved a partial rate increase and ordered an outside review.

That study, completed earlier this year, resulted in the department's recent request for a modest 2.75% increase and implementation of new cost-saving measures. Because neighborhood councils fought for more information, Angelenos will pay lower water rates for the foreseeable future.

More recently, more than 50 neighborhood councils jointly requested that the City Council begin keeping public records of our policy recommendations, just as it maintains files of correspondence from any city agency. Transparency is a cornerstone of democracy, and having the city publicly acknowledge and respond to advice from citizens is at the very core of charter reform.

The City Council stalled for months, ordering multiple staff reports before eventually approving the idea in two separate committees. But by the time it reached the full council last month, members had apparently decided this whole empowerment thing had gone too far. After a contentious debate, during which members Janice Hahn and Bill Rosendahl accused their colleagues of being afraid to share power, the City Council decided that after 18 months, the transparency idea needed more study.

These, of course, are the same people who adopted -- within hours of its arrival at City Hall -- Measure R, which was written by registered lobbyists and would have made lobbying regulations harder to enforce. Yet in rejecting the neighborhood council file proposal, some members had the nerve to suggest that lobbyists may have infiltrated the grass-roots groups and that participants at the local level are particularly vulnerable to bribery.

You know you've got a powerful movement going when politicians start slinging mud at community volunteers.

In all of these efforts, neighborhood councils throughout the city have demanded more honesty and accountability from city government. They've won some and lost some.

In a city whose people are all too often separated by geography, income and race, the neighborhood council system is working to bridge divides and empower communities. In the end, those coalitions will forge a truly participatory democracy in Los Angeles.

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