In front of a mostly empty room at City Hall on Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council began what is expected to be a months-long debate over how best to increase civic involvement in the nation's second-largest municipality.
At issue is a list of 73 recommendations intended to improve the city's neighborhood council system.
The proposals were drawn up by a 29-member commission that last year began exploring ways to ease the internal tumult within some councils and the apathy that has afflicted others.
The City Council will probably spend the next several weeks vetting the proposals before voting on them. There are 89 neighborhood councils, together covering most of the city.
"I think I would look at this as more of a tweaking of the neighborhood councils," said Jeffrey Jacobberger, one of the commissioners and a longtime participant in a neighborhood council. "If we can reduce the bureaucracy that the councils have to deal with, then more time can be spent on substantive issues, and there will be greater participation."
The heart of the debate involves how much power elected officials and the city bureaucracy are willing to surrender to the smaller councils. The system of councils was created by City Charter reform in 1999 in response to the alienation or outright disgust many Los Angeles residents expressed toward their government.
The commission's first recommendation is that the councils remain advisory and not acquire such powers as the authority to kill a proposed building project or to decide on the municipal budget, decisions that rest with the City Council and the mayor. Another recommendation is to refine the definition of "stakeholders," those who can participate in neighborhood councils.
The commission would like to see the term defined as "those who live, work or own property in the neighborhood and also declare a stake in the neighborhood and affirm the factual basis for it."
That proposal will probably be a source of debate.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl on Tuesday said such a definition allowed construction crews working on a housing project to be bused in to vote in a neighborhood council election in his district two years ago -- something he thought was inappropriate.
"People should live in the area to be stakeholders. My hope is that the definition will narrow," Rosendahl said Tuesday. "Because of the way it is defined now, people could be members of several different neighborhood councils without living in an area."
Commission members told the City Council that they would like to keep the definition of stakeholder broad but that they're open to letting each council restrict who can be on its board, which is elected by the stakeholders and guides a council's agenda.
That, the commissioners said, would make it possible to ensure that a board isn't taken over by outside interests.
Other commission proposals include that:
The city clerk oversee all neighborhood council board elections, to prevent the confusion, infighting and administrative headaches of councils running their own elections.
Short summaries of a neighborhood council's position on issues be printed on City Council agendas to inform the public, media and elected officials whether neighborhood councils support or oppose a position being taken by an elected official.
City agencies be required to inform neighborhood councils of projects within their boundaries and councils be allowed to weigh in on those projects.
The recommendations will be sent to the City Council's Education and Neighborhoods Committee, chaired by Councilman Richard Alarcon. Its other members are Councilwoman Janice Hahn and Councilman Dennis Zine. Hearings are expected to begin early next month.
Alarcon said he hopes to "calm the waters" of the neighborhood council system and have the City Council show it more respect.
"This is an experiment, and we're a long way from perfection," he said, noting, however, that democracies aren't perfect and that they change with the times.
The Neighborhood Council Review Commission's recommendations can be viewed at www.ncrcla.org.