Maybe They Should Occupy LA’s Neighborhood Councils

The Pico Neighborhood Council came very close to being the first neighborhood council to offer an opinion on the Occupy LA movement but the agendized resolution in support of the “peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights” failed to make it past discussion and was simply tabled for another month.

Around the country, “Occupy” protests have encountered varying levels of resistance and opposition that has, in many cases, galvanized the protesters and given them motivation for refining their organizations and action.

Occupy LA has faced one of the most potent of enemies, an ambivalent audience, one that is most likely to respond with a tired dismissal based on aesthetics or a weary look of disbelief as issues such as unemployment, foreclosures, homelessness, collapsing infrastructure and a collapsing economy are presented as a call to action.

There was a time when neighborhood councils were considered the ones most likely to storm City Hall and to demand accountability and performance, rallying support from around the city and “occupying” City Hall with grassroots power that simply would not be ignored.

But that never happened.

Almost six years ago, neighborhood council leaders gathered at the DWP and formed a citywide congress that prompted Councilwoman Janice Hahn to declare “This is a historic day. You will be leading this city into the future.”

The LA Times, which still covered neighborhood council activities back then, acknowledged the difficulties in rallying a citywide organization by noting that as Hahn wrapped up her keynote address, “bickering broke out among the 25 representatives from the 32 neighborhood councils that had joined the congress.”

“This is chaos!” said one man in the audience. “These are the people who are going to lead us?”

Since then, the number of neighborhood councils in the city has grown from 64 to 95. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which supports the neighborhood councils, has been decimated by budget and staffing cuts.

LA’s City Charter defines the purpose of neighborhood councils as “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

As the Occupy LA movement surrounds City Hall and addresses the economic crisis that threatens our fiscal stability and our quality of life, there are many that believe that this is exactly the message that would resonate with neighborhood councils.

It was in this spirit that Scott McNeely prepared the Occupy LA resolution and presented it to the Pico Neighborhood Council.

McNeely is well known for his work in the local community to improve the quality of life. He served as President of the Pico NC for years and as a member of Budget LA in the fight for city services.

In many ways, the Occupy LA resolution represents the substance of what neighborhood councils have been fighting for over the last several years. Pico Neighborhood Council was in position to be the first neighborhood council to simply offer an opinion, a nod, a gesture of support.

But that didn’t happen.

On an agenda that included the City Clerk’s survey on NC elections, the Mayor’s Budget Advocates, and the proposed Sidewalk Ordinance, the Occupy LA resolution came last. The night was long and the board discussions included a lengthy debate over the need for business cards and how to handle spam emails to NC email accounts.

When it came time for the Occupy LA resolution, the first obstacle came from Co-Chair Maryann Yurkonis who objected “I don’t think this is an appropriate action. It’s not that I disagree with the Occupy LA movement, I don’t think we should weigh in on this.”

This prompted a debate hinged on the simple proposition “A discussion of the merits of this Resolution is a valid exercise and it is appropriate to vote on it.”

Proponents of the process argued “To call this an inappropriate action is to rely on a definition of our role that is too narrow.”

After some of the most passionate discussion in an evening that was light on debate, the Pico NC Board voted to claim its authority to entertain a Board Resolution. The presiding Chair then tabled discussion on the Occupy LA Resolution until the December meeting.

The issue of whether or not neighborhood councils should have an opinion on Occupy LA hasn’t come up much over the last six weeks. The City Council motion in support of Occupy LA was passed unanimously four weeks ago, stating clearly “by the adoption of this Resolution, the City of Los Angeles hereby stands in SUPPORT for the continuation of the peaceful and vibrant exercise in First Amendment Rights carried out by “Occupy Los Angeles.”

The Central City Association weighed in, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce had an opinion, VICA contributed comments. As for the neighborhood councils, they were silent.

A month has passed and the only grumblings to be heard typically address the loss of the turf lawn surrounding City Hall and the inappropriateness of camping without a permit.

As for the First Amendment Rights of the Occupy LA movement, neighborhood councils have been silent.

As for the issues that Occupy LA has raised, neighborhood councils have been silent.

As for calling on the City of LA to conduct its elections according to “clean money” principles, neighborhood councils are preoccupied with their own elections.

As for calling on the City of LA to ban lobbyists from the legislative process, neighborhood councils are preoccupied debating their own advisory role.

stephen boxAs for calling on the City of LA to balance its budget honestly and without breaking the backs of the residents who can afford it the least, neighborhood councils are preoccupied with their own funding issues.

Neighborhood Councils throughout LA have an opportunity to take a stand and to take their rightful place in the governance of this city, even if it is limited to offering advice to the Mayor and City Council.

The world is listening and it’s time for neighborhood councils to speak.

Stephen Box


  1. Ray Bishop says

    Neighborhood Council’s were created to deal with the movement in the San Fernando Valley and East LA to separate from the City of Los Angeles. We worked to create the Councils to give more people a voice in City Government. Outreach was to be a major part of the structure.
    I served as an elected member of my neighborhood council, but soon found that the Chairman decided that this was his kingdom and the work of the committees and the effort to involve the members soon came to subject the the power of the Chair and those who were really interested in doing something threatened the established power base.
    Unfortunately the Chairman of this Neighborhood Council had the power to table an important discussion regardless of the wishes of the member community. This is the problem of NC as they become irrelevant to the development of a better community by giving a greater voice to the people.
    This happens in many groups and the Democratic Process Suffers. The charters without proper oversight have created cronyism and community dictatorships.
    It is only when people demand a voice that they will be heard. For many the fight is not worth it and they drop out. It is worth it and our lives and the future for our kids depend on it.

  2. says

    The time for feel-good impotent advisory councils – or for the more usual but almost equally impotent mass elections – has come and gone. ‘Occupy’ dramatizes that we are all in or becoming part of an economically disenfranchised 99.9%. (As economist Krugman noted lately, even the upper middle class of professionals is being wiped out in favor of that upper 1/1000.) And the real underpinning of the ECONOMIC 0.001 oligarchy is the 200+-year-old US (and other) constitutions’ concept of a Roman- style POLITICAL 0.001 oligarchy comprised in each jurisdiction of a very few long-term-serving legislators and other high government officers who wield all decision power nominally in ‘our’ name but with few real-time checks and balances. As Acton said, absolute power corrupts absolutely: they get to sell out their power for bucks to Big Oil and Wall Street with no real-time legal recourse from us. We 99.9% have become economically disenfranchised because (with few exceptions) we are also the politically disenfranchised 99.9%, the NON-officers. A program for sustained economic justice will require key constitutional change: so that public policy and law decisions are NOT in the hands of a few all-powerful special officers but are distributed for deliberation and decision – or at least timely review with power to affirm or reject – by randomly-chosen short-term teams of us ordinary citizens, the 99.9%.

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