Neighborhood Councils Are Supposed To Be The People’s Voice In LA Government, But Members Say The System Is Broken
L.A. is a city of 4 million people — and there are only 15 city councilmembers to represent them. In 1999, faced with a San Fernando Valley secession movement, the city created its neighborhood council system to increase residents’ representation at City Hall.
Anyone who lives, works, or has some meaningful stake in an L.A. neighborhood can join one of the 99 volunteer advisory boards to tell elected officials about that neighborhood’s concerns and priorities.
But start talking to neighborhood council members and you’ll quickly pick up on their frustration. Much of it is targeted at the city department in charge of supporting them, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, or DONE. Members say the city's mismanagement undermines the neighborhood council system's ability to do what it was created to do: represent residents at City Hall.
Neighborhood council members say people join hoping to make a difference in their communities, and instead get mired in a labyrinth of rules and regulations, communication failures, lack of guidance or direction, and bureaucratic roadblocks.
They say conflicts erupt without getting resolved, systemic problems aren’t fixed, and neighborhood council members burn out and leave. Their spots are filled by new volunteers who join and face the exact same problems.
In February, nearly the entire board of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council resigned en masse after a DONE employee forced it to spend part of its funds to sponsor an event hosted by the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation. The DONE staffer also said the council members had to attend the event or face removal from the board.
The ensuing uproar forced the resignation of DONE General Manager Raquel Beltrán.
This episode and others have caught Mayor Karen Bass’ attention. Now, as she searches for a new DONE general manager, “I really want to have the whole [neighborhood council] system evaluated,” Bass told LAist’s radio program AirTalk in April.
When LAist put out a call to neighborhood council members to share their experiences, we heard from several dozen members across L.A. Here are some of the issues they say they want addressed.
Neighborhood councils are advisory groups for city officials, so they don’t have the power to make laws or policy. But if they’re well organized and have a good relationship with their city councilmember they can wield a lot of influence, especially on issues like real estate development. The councils receive $32,000 a year in city funds, which they can grant to local nonprofits or schools. Read more here about how neighborhood councils work.
Members want ‘basic functionality’
Many neighborhood council members say DONE regularly falls short on standard support tasks.
One of the main powers that neighborhood councils have is the ability to weigh in on matters city leaders are discussing through a letter called a Community Impact Statement. Once a council determines its position on an issue and a majority approves the statement, it submits the letter through an online portal.
Jamie York, secretary of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, discovered last year that a number of city commissions — including the Police Commission, Ethics Commission, Planning Commission and more — weren’t receiving these impact statements from the neighborhood councils. Many city commissions set policies or provide recommendations to the mayor and City Council, so if you want to push for change on a specific issue, getting their attention is vital.
This wasn’t a technical bug. York found that DONE hadn’t updated the email addresses for the commissions in the portal since 2009 — more than a decade before she discovered the problem. That meant that several years’ worth of neighborhood councils’ Community Impact Statements never reached their intended destinations.
“One of the things that was our most basic function and the most basic way to communicate wasn’t being properly tended to,” she said.
York had been trying to push for a significant update to the city’s law on transparency in lobbying. Because of the outdated emails, much of her initial work to get it started — which involved drafting, approving and sending Community Impact Statements to the L.A. Ethics Commission — had gone nowhere.
York said DONE never alerted the neighborhood council system about the snafu even after it became aware of it, so she and another neighborhood council member notified each of the city’s 99 neighborhood councils themselves.
“I honestly am just looking for basic functionality and competence,” York said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.”
Interim general manager Vanessa Serrano said DONE has developed a new, upgraded portal (it launched this week) and going forward will update contact information for commissions every three months.
DONE released a report this month to explain how the oversight happened. (York brought the matter to the L.A. City Council last year. In November, the City Council instructed DONE to issue that report within 45 days, but it came out nearly six months later.) The report says that while the City Clerk’s office maintains the filing system for impact statements going to City Council members, that system never included boards or commissions, so DONE by default became responsible for managing that information. Keeping it up-to-date is “meticulous" and there is no system for commissions to automatically notify DONE when contact information needs to be updated, the report says. DONE also requested funding to hire an employee solely dedicated to maintaining the new Community Impact Statement system and keeping it regularly updated.
“I honestly am just looking for basic functionality and competence. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.”
The years-long failure to update the email portal is one of numerous problems at DONE, neighborhood council members say. Several members recounted instances in which DONE gave out incorrect information about its own processes, left neighborhood council members off department emails for months, routinely had out-of-date information on its website, and took weeks or months to respond to a question.
‘Incredibly onerous’ rules
One of the biggest issues with the neighborhood council system, members say, is the number of rules, regulations and procedures neighborhood council members are expected to follow, often without much guidance from DONE. As a result, they spend much of their unpaid time trying to figure out how to navigate this maze, rather than focusing on the work neighborhood councils were meant to do.
Because neighborhood councils are part of the city government, they have to adhere to a whole host of rules, including DONE’s policies, ethics requirements, the California Public Records Act, parliamentary procedure, the L.A. City Charter, and the Brown Act, which ensures that meetings are held in public and decisions aren’t made behind closed doors.
On top of all that, councils have to abide by their own bylaws, which cover things like how elections work or how many terms each member can serve. Bylaws are different for every council.
If members don’t follow these rules, they risk having their votes invalidated, losing their seats, or being sued.
Before taking part in the mass resignation of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council in February, former secretary Damien Burke was that council’s de-facto expert on all the procedures and regulations. They’re “collectively incredibly onerous,” he said. Procedural tasks like filing meeting agendas or minutes can take up to 20 hours a week if you’re not familiar with the system, he said.
DONE offers training on a lot of these rules, but many neighborhood council members say it’s still overwhelming trying to process it all.
L.A. City Councilmembers have entire teams of full-time staff to help them with these same rules and procedures.
“Neighborhood councils don’t have that,” Burke said. “The resources just aren’t there.”
Burke developed a series of guides to help neighborhood council members do things like file agendas and upload meeting minutes, along with software to automate some of that process.
Kelly Cole, who was previously involved with the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council for 10 years, said she never understood why DONE wasn’t able to help streamline or take on some of these administrative burdens. It takes members months, if not longer, to learn all the regulations and procedures and even which city departments to talk to to get something done. Every time someone new joins, they have to start from the ground up, she said.
An effective neighborhood council can develop a good onboarding system to pass on essential knowledge, she added, but councils with high turnover can easily fall into mass confusion without support.
Cole had some suggestions that could make it easier for members:
- DONE could reallocate some of its budget to hire professional minute takers for neighborhood council meetings, which some neighborhood councils already do using their own funds;
- DONE could create a clearinghouse for councils to share resources and best practices;
- DONE could provide up-to-date guides on which city officials to contact for specific kinds of requests.
So far, “nothing that makes it easier or more efficient or frees up members to get anything substantial done has actually happened,” Cole said.
DONE spokesperson Ann-Marie Holman said the agency is interested in offering more operational support to help neighborhood councils save time on administrative tasks.
She said DONE could offer training on how to do things more efficiently, provide longer lists of suggested vendors, and help councils broker deals with vendors.
“Those are things we can do to make sure that the total time people are spending doing their roles is really spent on the necessities,” she said.
Holman pointed to the annual Congress of Neighborhoods event, which brings together councils from across the city to network and receive training, as one opportunity for councils to share knowledge. She also said DONE provides a manual for board members that contains overviews of different city departments and specific contacts — although she acknowledged that it hasn’t been updated in several years.
Holman said DONE has spent the past several months updating and reviewing the manual, and a new version will be released soon.
Lack of guidance in a ‘hellish bureaucratic loop’
Members we heard from say that when it comes to the long list of rules and procedures neighborhood council members have to follow, DONE often doesn’t know the rules itself, or might relay incorrect information.
In 2022, the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council developed a comprehensive strategic plan to get its community engaged in the council’s work. As part of the plan, it decided to allocate money from its annual budget (the city gives each council $32,000 a year) to community improvement projects, including street safety measures, two Little Free Libraries and a community garden. The council partnered with neighborhood nonprofits to plan cleanups and put the projects in motion.
At the time, the council’s liaison from DONE, known as a Neighborhood Empowerment Advocate, was guiding it through a process called “exhaustive efforts,” where the department temporarily takes over a neighborhood council that can’t meet certain regulations and works with it to get back on track.
In this case, the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council entered the exhaustive efforts process because it didn’t have enough board members.
The DONE advocate, Mario Hernandez, managed all council meetings, including the one where members voted on the plan and the allocation of spending on community improvement projects. He reviewed the plan ahead of time and called it “amazing” in an email to board members reviewed by LAist.
Hernandez shared the plan with DONE, which applauded the effort and even featured it in its newsletter, said Michael Tessler, the former chair of the Hollywood Studio District council.
The council members approved it with a unanimous vote. They were so excited about it, they held a victory party.
Then a few weeks later, shortly before their annual funding was set to expire, Hernandez told them the plan violated a rule about how their money could be spent in their specific circumstance. Their funds for that year would be lost unless they came up with a last-minute workaround.
“We pulled it together, but at the end of the day, we went from the most enthusiastic body to the most disappointed [and] beat down,” Tessler said, calling the process of working with DONE a “hellish bureaucratic loop.”
Tessler said he wound up spending $600 of his own money to build the community garden. He recalled another member of his board telling him, “this is how it goes” in the neighborhood council system.
Serrano, DONE’s interim general manager, called the incident an “unfortunate situation,” made tougher by the fact that different rules apply when a council is in exhaustive efforts. On top of that, funding rules are generally overseen by a different department, the city clerk’s office. She said DONE was looking at how to provide more clarity and support to neighborhood councils during exhaustive efforts in the future.
“Unfortunately, sometimes our staff will not have the information on hand, or they might have the incorrect information, but still try their best effort to advocate for the neighborhood council,” she said.
A year later, Hernandez kicked off the firestorm that led to the Hollywood Studio District council’s mass resignation. DONE released a report on its investigation into that incident last week, which LAist was able to review, and said it “failed to provide the best direct neighborhood council support services,” but did not remove Hernandez. Tessler wrote in an email response to that report that Hernandez “shouldn’t be employed by DONE and until he’s removed I’m unwilling to return to the board and know a majority of my fellow councilmembers feel the same.”
Few ways to resolve conflicts
When you combine complicated regulations, little or no infrastructure to navigate them, and few people who are actual experts on these rules, you create a situation that breeds conflict.
And the neighborhood council system is well acquainted with conflict. Petty spats, personal drama and hours-long arguments over minutiae like office inventory are everywhere.
In conversations with LAist, members shared stories of harassment, bullying, illegal acts and profound injustices committed by community members, fellow neighborhood council members, and city employees alike.
DONE has a process to handle grievances, but it only accepts limited types of cases. For instance, it doesn’t address allegations of wrongdoing against individual council members, or alleged violations of state or federal law.
Many neighborhood council members said they tried not to ask DONE for help except as a last resort because their involvement wasn’t helpful, or could make the situation worse. Several described the department as a police force that came in to crack down on neighborhood councils for doing things wrong, rather than helping them do things right.
And in cases where DONE steps in to make a judgment call, it can do so with impunity, members say. There are few realistic avenues to challenge or overturn the decision, even if it might violate a rule or if rules are applied selectively. (This is one of the factors that led to the Hollywood Studio District council’s mass resignation.) The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners oversees DONE’s policies, but members say bringing issues to the board isn’t always effective.
Over time, the atmosphere of conflict can become toxic and there are few resources to help neighborhood council members deal with the effect on their mental health, said Adriana Cabrera, a former DONE advocate who currently serves as president of the Central Alameda Neighborhood Council.
Cabrera recalled council meetings where members of the public would hurl degrading and racist comments at her and at members of the council board. Board members would come to her crying because they were so upset by the interactions, she said.
Because these are public meetings, members of the public retain the right to free speech — including racist language — during the comment period. Cabrera said she wanted to find ways to help the council deal with these remarks, or at least prepare for the mental and emotional toll of having to hear them. But in the end, she said she wasn’t able to do anything — the department just didn’t have the training available.
Holman, DONE’s communications director, said that while her agency couldn’t provide full-scale conflict resolution or mental health support services with its own department resources, it has been able to refer neighborhood council members to other city programs that do offer them, like MyVoiceLA for reporting harassment or bullying, or the LAPD for hate incidents.
But Cabrera said her experiences wore her down over time.
“It just slowly took away my [activist] spirit,” she said. “When you don’t feel empowered, it’s hard to empower other people.”
‘It’s pushed so many good people out of government’
The effect of all this — impossibly complicated regulations, festering conflicts, lack of robust support and the burden on neighborhood council members to navigate the system by themselves on unpaid time — is that the neighborhood council system ends up repelling engaged residents who want to contribute to their communities, members say. Several former members told LAist that they left the system for these reasons, sometimes just a few months after joining.
Those who stay and succeed in neighborhood councils are often people with the financial resources to spend navigating the bureaucracy without being paid. Without basic support from the city, who is able to participate in the neighborhood council system will continue to skew towards those with disposable time and income, making it an increasingly unequal system.
“It's pushed so many good people out of government,” said Tessler of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. “I think the real question is: How many great community leaders have our neighborhoods lost because of DONE’s ineptness?”
York of the Reseda Neighborhood Council said she has “burned out” in just the two years she’s spent as a council member. Her term doesn’t end until 2025, but she said she wasn’t sure what her answer would be if she had to decide today whether to run for reelection.
“I’m not sure I have it in me,” she said.
“I think the real question is: How many great community leaders have our neighborhoods lost because of DONE’s ineptness?”
The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners sets policies for the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. It holds regular meetings twice a month, which are open to the public. Anyone can join these meetings and give a two-minute public comment. You can find details about upcoming meetings here.
The mayor can hire or fire the general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Mayor Bass has said she will soon hire a deputy mayor for community engagement who will be gathering feedback on the neighborhood council system and DONE’s next general manager. In the meantime, you can email her team at email@example.com.
The L.A. City Council has the power to propose changes to the City Charter, which provides the basis for the neighborhood council system. Voters still have to approve any revisions to the charter before they become final. You can input your address here to find out who your city councilmember is and how to contact them.
How do we fix the system?
It’s been more than 20 years since neighborhood councils were created, and these longstanding problems have prompted some to ask: Should this system continue to exist?
Lawmakers are exploring the possibility of expanding the L.A. City Council. A large expansion could mean much stronger local representation for the average resident, and less need for a neighborhood council.
But Cabrera says scrapping neighborhood councils would take away one of the few avenues for hyperlocal representation in communities like hers in South Central. It’s also the only level of government in which non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants, can serve.
But she said DONE needs more support from departments like the city attorney’s office, city controller’s office and city council to field questions, give guidance and offer training on specialized topics. They need to “come together and support this department in a way that creates access to people who are often left behind,” she said.
Others advocate for the department to have more funding so it can provide more resources for neighborhood councils — but with accountability metrics and transparency on how that money is spent. Some say the neighborhood council system needs to be completely overhauled, instead of installing minor fixes. The mayor has the power to hire a new DONE general manager, who could change how the department is run, but major structural changes to the system would likely require revisions to the city charter.
Several council members told LAist they would support either reorganizing DONE, amending the city charter to rethink how the neighborhood council system works, or eliminating the system entirely — just as long as the status quo doesn’t remain.
Tessler recalled how, when members of his neighborhood council began cleaning up the block to set up their community garden, a man who lived nearby came out of his house and thanked them for their work because he’d never seen anybody clean up his street before. Tessler told him not to thank them — but join them. The next day, the man arrived with a trash bag and pitched in on the effort, and began showing up for all their cleanup days afterward.
That’s the kind of community engagement good government can bring about, he said.
“It’s just doing the jobs we were elected to do. Create a system that lets us do that. Until then, the rest of it is just Model UN. It’s just playing pretend.”
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