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Power To The People: Why Neighborhood Councils Matter

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By Vanessa McGrady

This post is sponsored by Empower LA.

Mayor Eric Garcetti with the Neighborhood Councils. (Courtesy of Empower LA)

Nobody likes being blindsided by potholes, but most of us will just scrape and bump over one, swear, and move on. In 2012, the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council found a creative and engaging way to bring awareness to the issue with what is called a "pothole lottery." Residents called out the problem pits on their blocks, and the randomly chosen winning entry received $9,000 worth of street repairs, paid for by the Council. And though it didn't fix every single problem pothole everywhere, it was a great way to understand what the Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils do and how they can help influence local policy and politics.

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The city of Los Angeles has Neighborhood Councils that represent each of the 4.4 million people across every inch of the city. The Councils are the link between the individual resident and the city government, the "roots" part of "grassroots."

"This started out as an experiment back in 1999," says Tom Soong, the Director of Outreach and Communications, who supports the Neighborhood Councils with capacity building, training, and organizing skills through the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. "Now we have more than 1,800 board members. It doesn't mean that city government they will agree with you on every recommendation or piece of advice, but it shows you your power. If you can show the local officials and city departments that you're representing this many people, they will take notice." Each Neighborhood Council represents an average of 40,000 stakeholders, ranging from 5,000 in Hermon to over 100,000 at the Wilshire Center - Koreatown council.

Ann-Marie Holman won a seat on the Echo Park Neighborhood Council in 2014, served as Planning & Land Use Committee Chair and today helps the Neighborhood Council system with outreach and marketing efforts through her work at the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. "City Hall is literally at your doorstep. It's the form of government that's closest to the people. It gives people the chance to really be heard," she says.

Holman says that while letter-writing and attending meetings is still an effective form of communication with city leaders, participating in Neighborhood Councils is more of a hands-on experience. "You're able to see people face to face, to hold them accountable, to ask them questions, to work on projects that affect your community as a partner, and that's an experience that you don't get at the centralized form of government."

Neighborhood Council Art Exhibit opening at LA City Hall. (Photo by Arin Abedian. Courtesy of Empower LA.)
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Areas of Impact

The Neighborhood Councils tackle small everyday vexations such as potholes. But they also work on bigger issues including power and water rates, or solutions to LA's most major crises. "South Robertson's Neighborhood Council held a homelessness town hall to educate the community on how we need to get involved and what actions to take," says Grayce Liu, Empower LA's General Manager "How do we reach out to folks that maybe are not so keen on having any permanent supportive housing or affordable housing built in the neighborhoods? How do we start educating people about what homelessness is and how it affects everyone?"

Liu said that because City Council members each represent about 250,000 people, the Neighborhood Council can do some kinds of outreach work better, especially when it comes to language and cultural barriers.

"Neighborhood councils are supposed to help those individual micro communities have a bigger voice, and City Council members aren't able to necessarily do that--they can't always reach some of those mono-lingual communities that a Neighborhood Council can," she said.

The Councils are also tasked with helping to shape the larger vision of a neighborhood: think land-use issues. Tom Soong says that often, proposed developments need variances of a code, which needs approval from officials and buy-in from the community. The Neighborhood Council can work as a liaison between the developer and the residents, and make recommendations to the City Council. Though Neighborhood Council members are elected, they are not paid.

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"Part of their responsibilities is to provide the advice, but that advice should be based on the needs and concerns of the stakeholders of the community in the Neighborhood Council boundaries," Soong says.

2017 Congress of Neighborhoods. (Photo by Dusti Cunningham. Courtesy of Empower LA.)

Could the Next Member Be ... You?

Being on a Neighborhood Council can be rewarding on its own--it can also become a rung on the ladder to a bigger government career, says Liu. For example, City Controller Ron Galperin came from the Neighborhood Council system, as did District 4 City Council Member David Ryu and City Council Member Mitch O'Farrell from District 13.

Age minimums are up to each Neighborhood Council. There have been members as young as 12, but they need to be 18 to vote on fiscal matters. Adults and teens alike can learn to run for office, how to speak in public, and how committees and government work. You do not have to be a citizen, and prior incarceration is not a disqualifier. To be on a Neighborhood Council, you have to live, work, or own property or a business within the community served. You can also be a "Community Interest Stakeholder", which is someone who's a student or parent of a student at a local school, attend a local church, volunteer with a local organization, or have a substantial, ongoing, and routine participation in the community.

Thinking about pitching in but worried about the commitment? "You do need to really put your back into this work in order to see a success," Holman says.

"I think that also, one way to get more impact out of fewer hours is to be able to focus on the issues that you are really passionate about advocating for." So that means rather than trying to spread yourself thin on many committees, focus on one that runs effectively and efficiently. "Their role as a committee is to discuss everything, hold a public conversation about it, and then boil that down to do a presentation to the board so that the board has enough information to be able to make an informed vote, and take an official position on an issue."

It's one thing to go to a City Council meeting and complain, but it's another thing entirely to be the architect of a solution, Soong says. "I would like to see someone who is passionate. Someone who's going to do the work, but also who has an eye out for those who aren't at the table."

Learn how you can get involved in your Neighborhood Council - from attending a meeting, to joining a committee, to voting in the 2019 Neighborhood Council Elections (which are happening now through June 20th).