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Take local councils to the limit

July 12, 2007|Altagracia Perez and Raphael J. Sonenshein | Episcopal priest ALTAGRACIA PEREZ chairs the Neighborhood Council Review Commission; RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN is its executive director. The council's recommendations are at ncrcLA.org.

IN 1999, Los Angeles voters approved a grand experiment in local democracy. All of the city's far-flung parts were given the chance to create neighborhood councils that would bring community "stakeholders" together to advise the city government.

But one question is still unsettled: Who exactly is a stakeholder? Does it mean that a neighborhood is represented only by people who own houses or businesses there? What about people who attend religious services in the neighborhood? Who send their kids to school there?

Today, there are 89 neighborhood councils covering most of the city, and many have struggled with this very issue in one form or another. The Neighborhood Council Review Commission also looked at this question during an evaluation of the system required by the City Charter.

Thousands of Angelenos participate in neighborhood councils, including about 1,600 elected to the boards that advise City Hall on issues such as land use, budget priorities and delivery of city services. Councils are providing input on such contentious issues as the location of a Home Depot in the San Fernando Valley and the controversial mansionization of single-family homes.

Most observers agree that participation can, and should be, larger and broader than it is today. In our view, that can't be accomplished by limiting the definition of stakeholder.

The stakeholder issue goes to the heart of the neighborhood council idea. This system is not simply another form of representation, like the City Council. If it were, the City Charter would have limited stakeholder status to registered voters. Neighborhood councils were envisioned as a different form of participatory democracy, meant to bring the broadest array of interests to the table. The doors should be flung as wide open as possible.

The City Charter originally specified that stakeholders included anyone who lives, works or owns property in the neighborhood. The City Council later allowed councils to add as stakeholders a long list of groups, such as churches, nonprofits and community organizations.

But lists are inherently limiting. Our commission has made a preliminary recommendation -- subject to public review and discussion -- to standardize and broaden the definition of a stakeholder. We would do it with one sentence in the ordinance that governs neighborhood councils: "Stakeholder status in neighborhood councils shall be open by self-affirmation to those who live, work or own property in the neighborhood, and also to those who declare a stake in the neighborhood and the basis for it." In other words, if you think you're a stakeholder in a neighborhood, show up at a meeting and explain why. Perhaps you're a homeowner or renter in the area, or you own or work for a business there. Perhaps you run on the trails there, or board your horses there, or volunteer there.

Casting a net this wide raises legitimate concerns. Someone who simply frequents a neighborhood cafe might try to gain stakeholder status. What if a group takes advantage of this open-door policy to hijack a neighborhood council? A company might sway an election if all its employees voted in a bloc.

A coffee-buying takeover artist seems an unlikely threat. But the possibility of takeovers by organized interests is real, and some suggest that it has already happened. Our review commission is weighing testimony alleging takeover attempts by developers in Playa Vista, religious organizations in Hancock Park and a labor union in the harbor area.

Still, we believe that limiting who gets to participate is not the solution. The rules should not be about guarding the door, but what happens once everyone is inside.

Neighborhood councils set their own rules for who can stand for election, how boards are structured and how votes are allocated. Many boards prevent takeovers by creating specific constituency seats, so there might be one or more business seats, one or more homeowner seats, etc. Stakeholders whose connection to the neighborhood falls in those categories would vote for only those seats.

It's not a perfect solution, but it makes hijacking a board much more difficult. Electing board members from regions within the neighborhood might have the same effect.

The neighborhood council system is a beachhead of participatory democracy in this dynamic, diverse city. To reach their phenomenal potential, councils must -- despite the risks -- push their doors as wide open as possible. Our recommendations, now being debated at workshops throughout the city, are one way to do that. We also welcome your suggestions on how to achieve vigorous neighborhood democracy.

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