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Who are your neighbors?

Los Angeles may need to tighten the rules on who is eligible to vote in neighborhood council elections.

December 23, 2012
  • In the recent Eagle Rock election in which dispensary operators rounded up supporters, more than one-third of voters came from outside the neighborhood; in the end, two of the candidates on the pro-dispensary slate were elected. Above: An Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council board member stands in front of a proposed medical marijuana clinic in 2009.
In the recent Eagle Rock election in which dispensary operators rounded… (Los Angeles Times )

One of the animating forces behind reform of the City Charter in the 1990s was widespread frustration that the city did not effectively encourage or permit communities to participate in setting policy. In the San Fernando Valley, the harbor, Hollywood and other areas of Los Angeles, voters were so angry that they flirted with secession as a way to take control of the decisions that affected their futures.

One result was the creation of a system of neighborhood councils. Today, those entities, which voters approved as part of a larger package of charter reforms in 1999, are something less than their most ardent advocates once wanted but also something less than their detractors once feared. They are purely advisory. Other than controlling small budgets for neighborhood improvements, their only power is to persuade. They have no authority to veto proposed developments or otherwise control land use in their areas, an idea that some advocates once pressed for but that alarmed others who worried that projects would be blocked out of a sort of institutionalized NIMBYism.

And yet, despite the restrictions on their authority, the councils have managed to become significant, if uneven, sources of influence at City Hall. They helped create the pressure, for example, that led to a ratepayer advocate at the Department of Water and Power. Indeed, one measure of their influence is that they have in some cases been the object of gamesmanship — no one plays dirty to take over a powerless body.

One way that special interests have done that is by stacking neighborhood council elections — turning out large numbers of voters with little connection to the neighborhood and encouraging them to vote for particular candidates. They can do that because the city allows participation not only by people who live or work in the neighborhood but also by those who attend religious services or shop there, among other things. Those participants are known as "factual-basis stakeholders," meaning they have a basis for participation even if it is more tenuous than that of residents or workers.

In a recent Eagle Rock election for neighborhood council, for example, operators of marijuana dispensaries flooded the voting with outside supporters. In the end, more than one-third of voters came from elsewhere, and two of the candidates on the pro-dispensary slate were elected. In Rampart Village, 69 of the 135 people who voted in a recent council race were factual-basis voters who didn't live in the district, most of them recruited by supporters of one slate; the slate won.

It's not an accident, or necessarily a bad thing, that people with a relatively loose connection to a neighborhood are allowed to participate. This is a subject that was much discussed when the councils were established, and along with the decision to make the councils relatively powerless came a decision to open their elections to a broad group of stakeholders.

But today's councils may have taken that notion too far. It defies common sense to say that a person who stops for coffee at a Starbucks or fills his tank at a service station has the same investment in a community as a person who owns a home or business there. And if anyone with a Starbucks receipt can vote, then those elections will always be subject to manipulation. Advocates can gather up allies who live or work anywhere, buy each a cup of coffee and line them up to vote.

The city has grappled with this issue before, but it remains unsettled. The latest effort is being spearheaded by City Councilman Jose Huizar — and it is to be commended if also to be pursued with some caution. Huizar and the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment should seek to determine how serious a problem this is — if indeed it is a serious problem at all — and if they decide to take action, they should search for fixes that preserve broad access while curbing obvious abuses.

In seeking to strike an intelligent balance between inclusiveness and common sense, participation should begin with those whose stake is unchallenged and is specifically recognized in the City Charter — people who live, work or own property in a community should be presumptively eligible to participate. Beyond that, Huizar has proposed extending participation to people who can show they have an "ongoing" place in the life of the neighborhood. If that's too loose, perhaps it should be a "substantial and ongoing" relationship. That would help differentiate between, say, the churchgoer who comes to services every week or the parent whose children go to school there and the diner who stops in at a local restaurant.

No one should be under the illusion that this will be easy. If a person buys a cup of coffee at Starbucks, that clearly wouldn't constitute an ongoing relationship. But suppose he buys one every day?

One option available to neighborhood councils is to define their stakeholders broadly for the purpose of voting, but then limit the number of seats that can actually be won by those whose ties are most tenuous. A council of 10 members might, for example, set aside eight seats for residents and business owners, with two more for "others." That would not prevent factual-basis voters from choosing board members, but it would limit their ability to take control.

Once the city crafts reasonable definitions and rules, the job of implementing them will fall to the councils themselves. It should not be the city government's goal to answer every question for every council. It should, however, be up to City Hall to put in place thoughtful rules that do not thwart but rather encourage Los Angeles' ongoing experiment in community representation.

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