LA neighborhood councils celebrate 10 year anniversary

This year marks the 10th anniversary of neighborhood councils in Los Angeles. Voters created the councils to give Angelenos a greater say in government, and to cool secession fever in the San Fernando Valley. KPCC’s Frank Stoltze spoke with the head of L.A.’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment about whether the initiative is working.

Frank Stoltze: Across the city, says BongHwan Kim, neighborhood councils are at work.

BongHwan Kim: Mar Vista Neighborhood Council – they did a xeriscaping home tour. So they showed people how to convert their lawns to drought resistant landscaping.

Stoltze: He says thousands of people took the tours. Kim is general manager of L.A.’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. He oversees the city’s 89 independent neighborhood councils, and encourages people to participate in them.

Kim: Let's face it, the biggest challenges for engaging people in city government are apathy and cynicism. What can little old me do about this big problem?

Stoltze: Under the City Charter, neighborhood councils represent about 40,000 people. Typically, 20 to 30 residents, business owners, and community group leaders compose the councils.

Kim concedes membership tends to be whiter, wealthier, and more educated than the population. He says he’s working on that.

Kim: It’s going to be intimidating for limited English-speaking people, for example. So we have to do a better job as a city providing translation.

Stoltze: Stories abound about nasty fights at council meetings, often between older and newer residents in changing neighborhoods. Kim says the city’s set up a grievance system where neighborhood councils help each other resolve internal disputes.

He says success stories are more common. In the Pico-Union neighborhood west of downtown, Latinos and Koreans have learned to work together on events. They used part of their $45,000 a year budget to put on a health fair.

Kim: They had invited hospitals and acupuncturists and professional health providers, and provided free health care to low-income local residents.

Stoltze: He says 300 children received eyeglasses at the event.

Kim, the former head of L.A.’s Multicultural Collaborative, says neighborhood councils can break down race and class barriers.

Kim: In South L.A., there is one neighborhood council that has reached out to day laborers and invited them to start attending their meetings, and to this day, those day laborers have become neighborhood council board members.

Stoltze: Critics complain powerful developers sometimes manipulate councils, claiming their support for projects represents broader backing in the community. Kim’s heard that concern.

Kim: It’s a good thing that powerful developers are going to solicit the support of neighborhood councils. On the other hand, because of that associated greater influence from neighborhood councils, then they also have to be transparent and accountable to the public.

Stoltze: Kim says that means they need to follow financial disclosure requirements, and open meetings laws. The City Council recently agreed to allow neighborhood councils to place issues before it.

Neighborhood council leaders complain the council and mayor too often ignore them when they offer their input on the city budget and other matters. Kim says that’s sometimes true.

Stoltze: To put it succinctly, they're potentially a pain in the butt.
Kim: (laughs)) Yes, and I think part of their role is to hold city government's feet to the fire. And I think that's a healthy tension.

Stoltze: Kim says some still see neighborhood councils as too weak to be worth joining. He says the Pacific Palisades and Brentwood homeowners associations, for example, won’t participate in their local councils because they want to retain the right to file lawsuits against the city.

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