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Civics & Democracy

LA Mayor Bass Promises Review Of Neighborhood Councils

A color-coded map of L.A. shows the boundaries of neighborhood councils in each of the 15 city council districts.
A map showing the 99 neighborhood council districts.
(Courtesy City of L.A.)
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Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass Wednesday promised to evaluate the city’s neighborhood council system, which was once touted as a way to give voice to local communities but often has been ignored by those in power.

Her comments on LAist’s AirTalk program follow the recent resignation of the former general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE), which oversees the city’s 99 councils. Raquel Beltran had come under increasing criticism for how she managed the neighborhood council system.

“I really want to have the whole system evaluated,” Bass said, adding that there can be “big differences in the capacity, the neighborhood involvement, the functioning.”

She noted that “[e]ven in one neighborhood, you might have multiple councils.” Bass said she wants to “really improve the system … Now that we have an opportunity to have a new general manager, it's an opportunity to evaluate everything.”

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Neighborhood councils want more details

“I’m glad that Mayor Bass is finally listening to the concerns of neighborhood councils,” said Lionel Mares of the Sun Valley Neighborhood Council. “We do need reform and changes.”

“I’m just curious what the mayor really has in mind,” said Kay Hartman, a member of the neighborhood council in Palms. “The direction she has in mind — it's really hard to evaluate.”

“It's hard to respond” to the mayor, said Damien Burke, who was once treasurer of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. “She didn’t really say much.”

He recently resigned from the council when a representative of DONE demanded they make a donation to the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation over the objections of an overwhelming majority of the council. The foundation returned the money amid the controversy, according to Burke.

A Bass spokesperson declined to provide more details on the mayor’s thinking.

Neighborhood councils: as local as local government gets

As my colleague Brianna Lee has reported in a comprehensive guide to L.A.'s neighborhood councils:

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.

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They're also about as local as local government gets — and they're not strangers to, as Brianna put it, "infighting, personal animosities, pettiness, power trips, deadlocked meetings that last for hours, and even harassment."

The Neighborhood Council system was established in 1999 “as a way of ensuring that the City government remains responsive to the different needs and lifestyles of Los Angeles’ rich variety of communities,” according to DONE’s website. Perhaps more important in that moment, it was an attempt to ease tensions with San Fernando Valley residents threatening to secede from L.A.

‘Conflict resolution is a big deal’

Hartman said one of the issues she wants addressed is the need for help from the city in resolving disputes on neighborhood councils.

“Conflict resolution is a big deal in a lot of neighborhood councils because we have these people who are not professionals,” she said, adding, DONE “doesn’t always know how to help or doesn’t help in a way that makes things run smoothly.”

Hartman also said she wants to see the city council listen more to neighborhood councils.

“I want to be able to get five minutes in front of the city council or a city council committee,” said Hartman, instead of simply signing up to speak at meetings like everybody else. She noted that her council ostensibly represents the interests of 30,000 people.

“Neighborhood councils need better support” from DONE, Burke said, noting that wealthier neighborhoods in the city “are able to use this system to advance their purposes in city government.”

He said in “a neighborhood like mine where incomes are low, people work two or three jobs, where a lot of people are not native English speakers, navigating the bureaucracy and the work to make a neighborhood council effective is out of reach.”

Burke said effective support for the NC system costs money. “And that money is hard to come by when the mayor is proposing tens of millions of dollars more for the LAPD, which already gets more than 40% of the city’s discretionary funds,” he said.

Mares of the Sun Valley neighborhood council described having a hard time getting assistance from DONE for things as simple as how to run a hybrid zoom and in-person meeting. That’s critical for working council members.

“They have been very slow,” he said.

Neighborhood council members have long complained they lack real power in the city.

“I feel like the city council does not take us seriously,” Mares said. “We would like to have more power, more influence.” Burke echoed that theme, saying the councils have “a tiny bully pulpit.”

Tell us about your neighborhood council experience

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