Meighborhood Councils face an uphill battle as they attempt to fulfill their City Charter mandate to engage the public and advise City Hall, after all, they typically meet once a month while the City Council meets three times a week, making it tough to keep track of the issues and resulting legislation. Even the members of City Council, complete with dedicated staff and departmental liaisons, find it tough to keep up with the logjam of legislation, resulting in cries of “What are we voting on?” in a process that allows inaction to count as an affirmative vote.
Through it all, Neighborhood Councils are expected to monitor the delivery of city services and keep the public engaged in the process, a Sisyphean responsibility that challenges the capacity of the volunteer-driven Neighborhood Council system.
This prompts the question: “Can Neighborhood Councils keep up with the City of LA?”
If the City is serious about encouraging feedback from Neighborhood Councils, here are three things they can do to facilitate participation.
Motions that have been simmering for years suddenly spring on to an agenda, leaving Neighborhood Councils 72 hours to wade through 15 pages of agenda to find the item and then mobilize and communicate with City Hall.
Councils can file Community Impact Statements on the general topic (“We like sidewalks!”) well in advance of the agendized legislation but the final action will typically have specificity (“Homeowners will pay for repairs by deferring costs until the property is sold.”) that defies official Neighborhood Council Board action. Volunteers that meet every month can’t respond to 72 hour notice with a Community Impact Statement that addresses the most recent iteration of long-simmering legislation.
Neighborhood Councils must get better notice when agenda items such as the Hollywood Community Plan are going to appear on the City Council agenda, especially if they have been in the process for years, so that community members can be involved in the journey all the way to the finish line.
City Council agenda items are typically a moving target on agendas that are jammed with the full range of legislation, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. On some days, arriving a few minutes late means a wasted trip downtown. On others days, arriving on time means sitting for hours, never sure when a specific item will come up for comment and action.
The business of the people is important enough to schedule so that the public can participate without having to give up a day’s work for a minute’s commentary. The public’s ability to participate depends on the City Council treating the public with respect and the public’s time is a valuable asset that should not be squandered through sloppy management or underhanded machination.
Set a Good Example
Neighborhood Council leaders learn from the City Council, the Committees and the Commission. When members of the public are interrupted during public comment, it sets a bad example. When the public is required to sign in, a violation of the Brown Act, it sets a bad example. When the public is treated to agendas that are impossible to read, it sets a bad example.
If the City Council is serious about supporting Neighborhood Councils and engaging the public in the process, they will set an example by communicating well in advance, welcoming people to council chambers, offering informative agendas, and by listening during public comment, not interrupting or, even worse, simply ignoring.
As for the question, “Can Neighborhood Councils keep up?” the answer is yes, if the City Council is willing to partner with Neighborhood Councils in communication, organization, and respect.
Posted: Sunday, 17 June 2012