Neighborhood councils are the most local and accessible level of government in the city of Los Angeles, but chances are that most people in your neighborhood don’t even know they have one. Neighborhood councils organize street cleanups, call the right city officials when there’s illegal dumping or trees that need trimming, and weigh in on legislation at City Hall.
If you live, work, go to school or have some other meaningful connection to a place within city boundaries, there’s likely a council representing that part of town, and you can get involved right now. It’s election season, and councils across L.A. will be choosing new members in staggered election days through the spring.
- Are passionate about hyperlocal issues, from new building developments to curb cuts and tree trimming
- Work well with a group (including people who may disagree vehemently with you)
- Want to connect with your neighbors and learn a LOT about what it takes to get things done in city government
Neighborhood councils are more accessible than ever since the pandemic allowed meetings to go virtual in 2020. That helped a swell of new members win seats all across L.A. in the 2021 elections. Many of them were young, progressive renters serving in office for the first time, shaking up a system that has traditionally attracted older homeowners. People traditionally excluded from public office, such as people with felonies on their records and people who are undocumented, can also join neighborhood councils.
To be sure, neighborhood councils can get dramatic. Councils are rife with stories of infighting, personal animosities, pettiness, power trips, deadlocked meetings that last for hours, and even harassment. But it’s possible to make a meaningful difference for your community, especially if you know what you’re getting into first — and these seats can be a springboard to higher, citywide offices, too.
Curious about joining? We talked to current and former neighborhood council members to get a sense of their experiences, what they were able to accomplish and what others should know if they’re thinking of getting involved. In this guide, you’ll find:
- How neighborhood councils work and what power they have
- What makes a neighborhood council effective
- What you need to know to get a seat
What exactly is a neighborhood council?
Neighborhood councils are advisory groups for city officials. They can’t pass laws or compel officials to do anything, but they can weigh in on neighborhood priorities and legislation or programs that affect the area. Think of them as a collective voice for the neighborhood with a direct line of communication to your city councilmember’s office.
The neighborhood council system has been around a little over 20 years. The city established it in 1999 to ease tensions with residents of the San Fernando Valley, who were rallying a secession movement. The idea was that these councils could give residents a greater voice in City Hall. Today there are 99 neighborhood councils representing almost every part of the city (except Brentwood, the Pacific Palisades, and a few other areas).
How do they work?
Each council consists of a board, and usually several committees that specialize in areas like sustainability, education, development and land use, and public safety. All these roles are unpaid.
If you’re on a board, you’re responsible for voting on everything the neighborhood council wants to do, whether it’s hosting a community event, spending money on outreach, or sending a letter to a city councilmember. The board has to approve something by a majority vote in order for it to pass. You can run in a neighborhood council election and win a seat on a board, or you can wait until someone vacates their seat mid-term and get the board to appoint you.
If you’re on a committee, your job is to set priorities for your specific area of focus and propose items on which the board then votes. (Only board members get to vote on the items.) Board members are often on committees, but you don’t have to be on a board to join a committee — you just have to get the committee to approve you as a committee member.
Neighborhood councils primarily take action by:
Writing letters: When a neighborhood council wants to urge city officials to take action on something, they can issue a Community Impact Statement. These are letters that express the council’s position on something — for example, legislation the City Council is voting on, or a problem they want a city commission to prioritize. Community Impact Statements get submitted to the city clerk’s office and attached to City Council motions for the public record.
For instance, here are some of the impact statements that neighborhood councils submitted when the City Council was considering a ban on homeless encampments within 500 feet of schools and daycares (which it eventually passed). Here’s the Arleta Neighborhood Council’s letter supporting the ban, and the Echo Park Neighborhood Council’s letter against it.
Spending money: Councils can issue small grants to nonprofit organizations and schools within the area, known as Neighborhood Purpose Grants. That money can be used to donate art supplies to neighborhood schools or to help a community organization put on a cultural event, for example. Neighborhood councils can receive up to $32,000 a year in city funds to spend on these grants, in addition to general operations like website maintenance fees or meeting flyers. (If you’re curious about what your neighborhood council spends its money on, all reports are public on this dashboard.)
Being in touch with city officials: Even though any resident can contact a city councilmember’s office or city department directly, neighborhood councils tend to have better access to those in charge. It’s common for a deputy from the city council member's office, mayor’s office, Department of Transportation or LAPD to attend meetings to give updates and field questions. Over time, neighborhood council members get really familiar with how departments work and who to contact for help with an issue, so they can help escalate concerns fairly quickly.
The city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment supports neighborhood councils’ operations, provides training and steps in whenever issues arise that the council can’t resolve by itself. The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners oversees the whole system and sets rules for how it operates.
Councils have to abide by certain rules, like making sure all meetings are accessible to the public and that money is spent in an ethical way. But they get to decide how they will be structured. That means each council can decide how many board seats it has, what kind of committees it has, whether board seats can represent specific interests, and more.
That means neighborhood councils can be vastly different from each other. For instance, the Mid City West Neighborhood Council has 36 board seats, while the Hermon Neighborhood Council has nine. Some councils have board seats specifically to represent renters, or religious groups, or seniors (the Sylmar Neighborhood Council even has an equestrian representative).
What kind of power do they have?
Because neighborhood councils can only advise officials, their power to affect city policies is pretty limited (more on that later).
Still, they can take some meaningful actions: organizing cleanup events, getting trash cans installed, planting new trees, hosting community events, and giving out grants for school supplies or meal giveaways. And there are a few other major ways they can make a difference:
New developments and housing: When developers propose a new project in a neighborhood, they need to get community input, and often they’ll turn to a neighborhood council for it. Councils can review the proposal and decide whether to support it. They can also send back notes: Can we add more affordable units to this housing complex? What if we adjust the number of parking spaces? Can we plant trees in front that will offer more shade? In many cases, a developer will work with the council on incorporating that feedback to earn their approval.
The soft power of neighborhood councils matters here, said Alessandro Negrete, a former board member for the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council. “At the end of the day, the city still has the last say on whatever we approve, but you are the first touchpoint where the community can influence socially — like, will your business be successful or not?”
Unhoused residents: Some councils have used their budgets to supply food, hygiene kits and basic necessities for unhoused and food insecure neighbors. In 2018 the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council granted more than $13,000 to help provide mobile showers for unhoused residents for an eight-month period, for example.
Street design: When the L.A. city government rolled out its Slow Streets program in 2020, providing street placards and temporary barricades to slow car traffic on residential areas, neighborhood councils could decide whether they wanted to implement them, and on which streets. Councils can also work with the city Department of Transportation to get approval for things like repainting curbs or installing curb extensions. In 2013, the Mid City West Neighborhood Council began developing a road safety plan that included measures like traffic circles and bike-specific traffic signals across a five-mile stretch of road. Eventually it garnered support from the city and secured $2.3 million in funding to move forward.
Public safety: Many councils meet regularly with representatives from LAPD or the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to discuss public safety concerns, get updates on crime in the area, and make specific requests for services. They can reshape these conversations, too: In 2021 the LA-32 Neighborhood Council rejected a motion to sponsor a local Night Out event with law enforcement, opting instead to organize a conversation at a community garden to discuss what public safety could look like apart from police, according to Yvonne Yen Liu, a former board member.
“In our own little way, we defunded the police,” Liu said.
Training members for bigger roles in city government: Neighborhood councils are often boot camps for learning how city government works and what it takes to solve community problems, so many members wind up getting jobs with the city or even get elected to office. Look across L.A.’s elected officials and you’ll find a noticeable number who started out as active members of their neighborhood councils. To name a few: City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto, City Councilmembers Nithya Raman and Hugo Soto Martinez, and City Controller Kenneth Mejia.
What makes a neighborhood council effective?
If board members aren’t aligned, it can be difficult to get anything done. Personality clashes can create a toxic environment. Consensus, compromise and diplomacy are key — not just among board members, but between the council and community residents, too.
“If you think you’re going to single handedly do something, that’s mistaken because the work gets done by committee and by boards,” said Ann-Marie Holman, director of communications for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and a former board member for the Echo Park Neighborhood Council. “You’ve got to be prepared to work with people who believe the complete opposite [from you]. Otherwise you’re going to be dead in the water.”
How much a council can accomplish also depends on how many people actually participate in it. When there are more members to fill board seats and join committees, they can share the workload, come up with a larger pool of ideas, and rally their neighbors to support initiatives. And when a council is chronically dysfunctional, sometimes the best remedy is to replace its members — but that only happens if enough people vote.
If you’re an effective organizer, it is possible to change up a council’s composition in a strategic way. Scott Epstein, the former board chair of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council (and former City Council candidate), said he used “assiduous recruitment” to attract progressive candidates with similar values to run in three separate elections, eventually making the entire council more progressive and aligned.
“Being able to transform the culture of a place from someplace that said no to good things to someplace that said yes was a big deal that I was very proud of,” he said.
Having a well functioning council is only half the battle. The other half is getting city officials on your side.
Will city officials actually listen to you?
City councilmembers and city departments all have their own priorities and relationships with neighborhood councils. When both sides have priorities that align, it’s easy to get officials on board. When they don’t, things get trickier.
“It depends on your councilmember and whether they care about you or not,” said Olga Lexell, a former board member for the South Robertson Neighborhoods Council. “It depends on that particular department and whether they care about you or not. It sort of has to be a perfect storm of things. A lot of times they’ll only listen to you if it’s convenient to them.”
Michael Schneider, a board member with the Mid City West council and founder of the organization Streets For All, said that then-Councilmember Paul Koretz didn’t move forward with any of their transportation proposals for years, even ones that had broad community support. “We got to the point where we were like, ‘What will you say yes to? Because you’re saying no to everything.’”
Neighborhood councils can sometimes move the needle, though. Joseph Riser, who was previously involved with the Arroyo Seco and Hermon Neighborhood Councils, said their strategy was to get a critical mass of people at meetings to demonstrate support.
“When we would invite a councilmember to a meeting, and we’d have 50 to 100 people in a room in a community of 3,000, then he knew that that’s what the community really wanted,” he said. “It’s a numbers game in political representation. If five people say things 50 times, it’s not anywhere near as convincing as if 50 people say it five times.”
Neighborhood councils may not have the kind of decision-making ability that sways larger policies, but they can make people feel connected to government in a way they might not otherwise be. Nearly all the people we spoke to about serving on a neighborhood council told us that regardless of what they were able to get done, they learned a lot about their neighborhoods and how the city works.
Riser said during the time he was involved with his council, their board was able to recruit volunteers to drop off flyers to every single house in the neighborhood every time there was a meeting. Not only did that get people aware of the council and attending meetings in larger numbers, but volunteers would also start noticing problems around the neighborhood and work to try to get them fixed.
The council’s biggest success wasn’t so much a concrete action or change they were able to make, he said. “It was the actual empowerment of a community that didn’t have a lot of governmental savvy, didn’t have a lot of contact and input with the councilmember or city agencies.”
Who can run for a board seat?
Compared to other government bodies, neighborhood councils allow a lot more people to get involved.
You can run for a seat if you’re undocumented. Or unhoused. Or if you have a felony on your record. Many councils require representatives to be at least 18 years old, but some have specific Youth Representative seats open to teens as young as 14.
Each neighborhood council gets to set its own rules for who can run for specific types of seats. (These rules are spelled out in the council’s bylaws — you can find them all here.) Certain seats may require candidates to live and own a house in a specific area, while others may be open to anyone who lives in the neighborhood.
But you don’t even have to live in a neighborhood to be eligible to serve. There are seats that are open to anyone who’s a “community interest stakeholder,” meaning you have some particular connection to the area. You might be eligible if you work, go to school, own a business, or go to church in the neighborhood, depending on the type of seat that’s available.
Some councils may require proof of your relationship to the neighborhood — a work pay stub or lease agreement, for example. Others have more of an honors policy.
In many cases, you may not even have to deal with a community election in order to get a seat. When a seat becomes vacant because a member resigns, for example, board members can appoint a replacement. If you’re interested, you can get in touch and see what they require to consider you for the seat.
What should I know before I get involved?
Here’s the common advice we heard from current and former neighborhood council members across L.A.:
Get familiar with the dynamics of the council first. Because each council is so different, it helps a lot to know what you’re jumping into. All board and committee meetings are open to all members of the community; you can join in and observe how well members work with each other and what priorities they have. Do they get along? Are they able to reach consensus? Are there personal clashes that get in the way of accomplishing things? Don’t be surprised to come across some, ahem, colorful personalities in the process.
If it turns out the neighborhood council where you live isn’t something you can work with, you can also consider other neighborhoods you have a connection to. Remember, in many cases you can run as a “community stakeholder,” meaning you aren’t required to live in the area.
- Input your address here to find which neighborhood council represents you.
- Look up any council's bylaws here to see what kind of seats they have and who's eligible to run.
- See how neighborhood councils spend their money.
- Get information on how to file your candidacy.
Understand the time commitment. If you’re on a board, you’re expected to commit to one monthly board meeting and perhaps a committee meeting if you’re also required to serve on one. But maximizing the potential and effectiveness of the council takes extra work — training, community engagement, studying city rules and procedures, meeting with city officials, answering emails, and more.
So while you can get by just showing up to council meetings to vote, more engaged members might wind up spending 15, 20, or even 30 hours a week on council duties in order to get things done. Reminder: this is all unpaid.
If that kind of commitment doesn’t work for you, there are other options. You can join a committee without joining a board, and still wield a considerable amount of influence. You can volunteer to help with any of the council’s projects, too.
There are a lot of rules. Because neighborhood councils are part of city government, they have to abide by certain regulations, and that can make tasks onerous. For instance, board members can’t just bring up topics on the spot during a meeting; all discussion items must be placed on an agenda ahead of time, and nothing outside the agenda can be discussed.
All these different rules add up: Damien Burke, a member of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council, said it took him an “incredible amount of studying” to navigate all the procedural aspects of serving on the board. He owns two physical copies of Robert’s Rules of Order, which lays out the standards of parliamentary procedure that council meetings must abide by, and actually created a series of guides for other neighborhood council members on how to comply with all these rules.
Expect things to move slowly. You are dealing with government bureaucracy, after all. Negrete, the former board member from the Boyle Heights council, said it took him one and a half terms — that’s three years — to shore up the funding and public will to get one pocket park developed on a specific street. (“Friends call me the Leslie Knope of Boyle Heights,” he said.)
“This is a marathon, not a race,” Negrete said. “Setting yourself up for success means being invested in your community for the long run.”
Outreach matters a lot. Neighborhood councils ultimately can’t do very much if residents don’t know they exist. Connecting with your neighbors and getting them acquainted with the council system gets them one step closer to understanding how to fix local problems big and small — and helps everyone grow their collective civic power.
I’m in! How do I join a neighborhood council?
Figure out what neighborhood council you are interested in joining. You can enter your address here to find out which neighborhood council represents your area. You can also look at this map of all 99 councils and the areas they represent.
If you don’t live in the city of Los Angeles or you’re in an area that doesn’t have a neighborhood council, there may be a neighborhood association or “community council” that represents the area instead. But the rules for joining and the way they operate will be different from those within L.A.’s neighborhood council system.
- Decide if you want to join a board or just a committee. Being on a board means you get to vote on everything the council does, but it’s a bigger commitment, especially if you’re also serving on committees at the same time. If you’re passionate about one particular issue, or if you can’t dedicate the time to being a board member, consider joining a committee instead — just remember that you can’t vote on larger board decisions. To join a committee, just get in touch with the council to see if they have available spots and ask how to join.
Check out their election schedule. If you’re running for a board seat, there are 12 different timeframes for elections across all the neighborhood councils, so make sure you’re clear on candidate registration and voting dates for your specific council. Here’s the schedule for the 2023 elections.
Missed the candidate filing deadline? Keep an eye out for seats that go vacant before the term is up — in those cases you can skip the election, apply directly, and get the board to vote you in.
- Pick a seat to run for and check the eligibility rules. Some seats are “at large,” meaning they represent the entire neighborhood, but other seats may represent specific geographic areas. Some councils will have specific seats designated for homeowners, renters, or business owners. You can check any council’s bylaws to see what requirements they have for candidates running for any of these seats.
- File your candidacy. You can do it online or via a paper application. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment website has instructions, links and informational resources for how to do it.
Launch your campaign. If you’re running unopposed, this probably isn’t necessary. But if you’re part of a crowded field of candidates, you may want to do something to distinguish yourself. The effort you put in depends on what it takes to get voted through in your neighborhood. Some candidates join together as a slate, create websites, purchase voter lists, knock on doors and put up lawn signs. Others may find they just need to call a handful of friends to ask them to vote.
Perhaps the most important part of getting the word out here is letting people know that their neighborhood council exists, and that they have to specifically request a ballot to vote for candidates. (Here’s the website where they can do just that.)
Have you served on a neighborhood council? Do you have story ideas for us? Tell us about your experiences below.
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