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The powers that could be

Neighborhood councils seek a role independent of the mayor and the City Council.

November 04, 2007|D.J. Waldie | D.J. Waldie, a contributing editor to The Times, is the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles."

In the slightly rundown meeting rooms of the Los Angeles Convention Center, worlds collided last weekend. Dark-suited elements of the city's political apparatus, like so many gray blimps, passed through the annual Congress of Neighborhoods talking of synchronized traffic signals and diversity. About 300 elected neighborhood council representatives sat around tables clustered by color-coded region. They didn't seem impressed by the show. They were over being awed by the politicians' praise of their ethnic, racial and geographic diversity, tired of being congratulated for the obvious and ready to get on with their part of the city's half-finished revolution -- a revolution of popular desire put into motion by City Charter reform in 1999.

Charter reform, among other things, sought to create a new world of civic life in Los Angeles, centered on more than 100 elected neighborhood councils There are almost 90 of them now, and they embody much of what is hopeful in this fractured and cranky city. The old world of politics-as-it-is -- represented by the dark suits from City Hall -- concentrated mainly on what is fractured and cranky. They mildly but insistently reminded the neighborhood council members that City Hall has branded them as difficult. (True, every council has been disrupted by its gadflies and one-issue die-hards. And not every council board member -- all of them unpaid volunteers -- can successfully chair a meeting, draw up a budget or lead a crowd of strangers toward a common goal.)

The neighborhood council board members -- representing the new world of politics-as-it-might-be -- generally accepted the criticism. But they were at the Convention Center for more than a lesson in civility. They were ready to talk about real power -- because the neighborhood councils have discovered they actually have some.

That's a problem for the City Council and the mayor, because each would like to use neighborhood councils for their own small ends. It's a problem for the neighborhood councils themselves too, as they labor to define what their larger purpose is. Neighborhood councils may one day have the capacity to change how Los Angeles is being made. In fact, change has already begun.

In Sunland-Tujunga in August, the neighborhood council, along with a coalition of opponents, faced off against Home Depot and won a key City Council vote that delayed the opening of a new store at least until the company completes a broader environmental report. In Northridge, opponents of a Wal-Mart project stalled it with the help of their neighborhood council. In Glassell Park, the neighborhood council and the local improvement association engineered a City Council moratorium that may stop construction of another Home Depot. In El Sereno, the neighborhood council joined a 15-year fight that has led the City Council to block, for now, work on the controversial Elephant Hill housing development. In San Pedro, neighborhood councils are allied in an effort to stop the proposed 1,950-unit Ponte Vista development on Western Avenue.

Neighborhood councils want to change more than local land-use policy. In Woodland Hills, the neighborhood council gets credit for persuading a newly receptive Department of Water and Power to adjust proposed electricity rate hikes so that Valley residents facing long, hot summers aren't penalized for using air conditioning. That accommodation angered some City Council members. Some boards of neighborhood councils also are questioning the decades-old practice of transferring DWP revenue from ratepayers to the city's general fund, a flow of cash on which the city depends.

Greater political sophistication underlies the councils' latest successes, bringing with them new respect. Councilman Greig Smith offered assistance to the Northridge West Neighborhood Council opposed to the Wal-Mart project. Councilwoman Wendy Greuel credits the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council for reversing her support for the Home Depot project. And Councilwoman Janice Hahn opposes the Ponte Vista development in part because neighborhood councils in her district couldn't be ignored.

The making of more and broader coalitions is the next lesson neighborhood councils are trying to learn. The guiding principle is "the rule of three." If three neighborhood councils are mutually supportive, some board presidents believe, and they combine their access to other community organizations to leverage their influence on City Council decision-making, then the councils stand a chance of prevailing against City Hall, its watchful phalanx of lobbyists and its often unfeeling bureaucracy. Even some developers are sensing a shift in the webs of power. They want to talk to, rather than fight, neighborhood councils.

City Hall representatives at last week's Congress of Neighborhoods wanted less talk about these shifting power relationships and more about diversity. They wanted the councils to apply the old rule of going along to get along.

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