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'Neighborhood' councils aren't only for neighbors

You don't have to live, work or own property in a neighborhood to join its council or vote in its election.

December 21, 2010|Jim Newton

David Rockello doesn't live in Rampart Village, and he doesn't own a business or property there. But he's president of the Rampart Village Neighborhood Council, elected in part by voters he recruited — people who, like Rockello, neither live nor work in the area.

Rockello didn't break any rules to get his post. In fact, he followed them to the letter. And that has some people worried.

The point of neighborhood councils, as envisioned by the charter reformers who designed them, was to provide a way for the city's many distinct communities to have a voice in planning decisions and other policies that affect them. But who should represent those communities? Everyone agrees that those who live, work or own property in a district should be allowed to vote and to serve; trickier is the question of those who have a more fleeting relationship to an area — those who attend church in the area, say, or shop there or use its parks.

To accommodate those interests, the city settled on a broad definition that says anyone who can demonstrate a "factual basis" to be regarded as a stakeholder is eligible to vote or join a council. As a result, a voter who presents a Starbucks receipt from the district is, for the city's purposes, considered just as entitled to cast a ballot as a homeowner.

It didn't matter much when the stakes were low. But the councils are becoming a significant force. Each controls $45,000 a year in public funds, and they act as focal points for their neighborhoods, reviewing development proposals, advising council members, making grants and supporting community projects. As of today, there are 92 councils spread across the city, with 1,700 elected board members.

In Rampart Village, that growing power collided with an ongoing debate — one with overtones of ethnic pride — over how Historic Filipinotown should be represented. When the boundary lines for councils in that part of the city were certified, the area was split between councils representing Echo Park and Rampart, with about one-third in Rampart Village and the other two-thirds in Greater Echo Park Elysian, just to the east.

Some members of the Filipino community felt slighted, but then spied a way to revisit the issue. Rockello, who lives in Echo Park, put together a slate of candidates for the Rampart Village council, then went out and recruited dozens of voters. He picked up people from food banks and gathering places, recruited some at a church barbeque, then ferried them to the polls in vans. Once there, the recruits either "self-affirmed" that they had a stake in the Rampart area or presented a receipt showing that they'd purchased something in the community.

In the end, 69 of the 135 people who voted in the election were "factual basis" voters who didn't live in the district, most of them recruited by Rockello. That was a watershed moment in the brief history of L.A. neighborhood councils. It was the first time that such voters composed a majority of any council election.

"The goal was to win," Rockello said last week.

Although Rampart Village is the first council to be elected by a majority of "factual basis" voters, it's clear that the idea is catching on. Citywide, nearly 17% of voters in the last neighborhood council election identified themselves that way, and more than 40% of those who cast ballots in the latest Pico Union and Greater Griffith Park elections neither lived nor worked in those communities.

As the law stands, there is nothing to stop any interested party — a developer, say, or a labor union or anyone who just wanted access to $45,000 — from rounding up 50 or 60 people, buying them a cup of coffee and directing them to vote. And by the rules of some districts, such as Rampart Village, council candidates need not live in the area.

Rockello sees this as healthy. Al Abrams, president of the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, is not so sure. "It shows the vulnerability of the system to being gamed," he said. "This has to be fixed." The board, he said, will turn to this early next year.

Allowing shoppers to qualify as stakeholders has implications for almost any community, but it is of special concern to Greater Echo Park Elysian, home not only to much of Filipinotown but also Dodger Stadium. By the city's definition, members of that council point out, anyone who went to a Dodgers game could vote in that council's elections.

Rockello might have something to say about that: He lives in Echo Park's District 5. In fact, on the same day he was elected in Rampart Village, he won a seat in Echo Park too. So did his wife. He now sits on both neighborhood councils and hopes to use his positions to reunite Filipinotown. "To beat 'em," he said, "I had to join 'em."

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