KPCC has embarked on a series called Project Citizen, which looks at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come with being a citizen. In this story, KPCC's Alice Walton looks at how L.A. citizens get involved in their communities through neighborhood councils.
When the city of Los Angeles reformed its charter in the late 1990s, no issue received more attention than the creation of a grassroots system of Neighborhood Councils. Now, more than a decade later, the councils have produced their first citywide elected official.
Attorney Ron Galperin spent years on the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council. That led to him being appointed to a couple of city commissions — experience that helped get him elected this year as city controller.
"I view myself as having a special responsibility because of that," Galperin said.
That kind of civic involvement is exactly what members of the charter reform commission had in mind when they created the grassroots system in 1999.
"The hope was that some people would begin working in Neighborhood Councils and then from there they would go onto other city offices — city council, mayor even, attorney general — and now we have it," said Erwin Chemerinsky, who heads UC Irvine's Law School and served as chair of the Elected Charter Reform Commission.
The Neighborhood Councils were created, Chemerinsky said, because there was a "strong desire in the city of Los Angeles to decentralize power, to try to find more ways to get people involved in governing the city."
There are 95 certified Neighborhood Councils in Los Angeles. To create a new council, residents need to collect a few hundred signatures from a neighborhood with at least 20,000 people and then prepare by-laws.
Over the past decade, the groups have had an increasingly strong presence at City Hall — even on broader issues. Earlier this year, a coalition of councils was able to delay a proposed $3 billion dollar bond proposal for street repairs, claiming there hadn’t been enough public input.
But the emphasis is usually local. Currently, the Silver Lake council is pushing for a ban on short-term rentals in that neighborhood’s private residences.
But it hasn't always been a smooth ride for Neighborhood Councils. Angelenos who don’t live in a particular community can still participate in its Neighborhood Council, but, Councilman Jose Huizar says, some people have taken advantage of that over the years when it came to electing council board members.
"You know you could do anything from shop at the local store, buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks — and that’s what they call them, Starbucks voters," Huizar said.
After medical marijuana dispensary owners tried to get their customers to vote in the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council board election, Huizar worked with the groups to tighten the criteria for voting in council elections.
"Now we are asking people who actually spend some time there or visit parks, religious institutions, schools — so it’s much more substantiated in how they interact with that neighborhood," he said.
Neighborhoods are the glue in this sprawling city – where Angelenos may not know their council member, but they know the streets’ potholes like the back of their hand. They know where the sidewalks buckle, and they know when the streetsweepers skip their block.
Jim Kompare of the North Hollywood West council says that’s why he ran for his neighborhood board.
"[I'm] just here to help the neighborhood," said Kompare as his council participated in a recent back-to-school night at a neighborhood junior high campus. "I’ve lived in this area for 23 years and I find it’s a great neighborhood. It’s got its problems, but it’s got a lot of great things about it and I want to help make it a better place. You know, just [get] back to that volunteerism."