KPCC has embarked on a series called Project Citizen, which looks at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come with being a citizen. This FAQ ran in conjunction with KPCC politics reporter Alice Walton's look at how Los Angeles citizens get involved in their communities through Neighborhood Councils.
What are neighborhood councils?
Neighborhood Councils are groups of individuals who live, work or own property in a particular neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles. Each is certified and funded by the city to take on issues of importance to their community. The size of the council depends on how many representatives the neighborhood determines it needs. Councils must represent neighborhoods with a population of at least 20,000, and have to pass muster with the city department tasked with overseeing them, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE). Neighborhood council members meet regularly with their city representatives and with the mayor. As of September, 2013, there are 95 such councils within the city of L.A. and another two in the process of becoming certified. Each defines its boundaries and determines its own bylaws, with oversight and help from DONE.
DONE also oversees elections to the councils, helps facilitate meetings, assists in training, and doles out funds, among other tasks. The councils have their own collective body, called the Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils Coalition (LANCC), which meets regularly with delegates from various neighborhood councils.
Where did they come from?
The Neighborhood Council system evolved out of the reform of L.A.'s city charter in 1999, as a means of making local government more accessible and representative of the communities that make up the city.
In 2001, after two years of study and planning, the city published its Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils. By 2004, there were several councils already in place, and a body of governing documents for councils within the system.
How are neighborhood councils structured?
Each council has its own bylaws which govern its meetings, election process, and protocol. The city, through DONE, ensures that they conform to the rules that city office holders are subject to.
Councils have to consist of at least three positions that fulfill the functions of a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer — though they can be titled any way the council chooses. Some, for instance, have “chairs” rather than presidents.
According to the plan that established them, Neighborhood Councils must:
- Meet at least once every three months
- Reflect, as much as possible, the diversity of the community they represent
- Have a governing body that is regularly elected or selected, in which no member can serve for more than eight consecutive years
- Post meeting notices and abide by California’s open meeting procedures (as stipulated in the Ralph M. Brown Act)
- Have a process for running meetings, tallying votes, and filing grievances against the council
- Abide by the same ethics laws that govern city office holders
How are neighborhood councils funded?
According to Empower L.A, each neighborhood council receives money from the city council on July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. As of March 2013 this amount was $37,500, down from the original $50,000 that was allocated to councils when the program began.
This money can be used for operating costs, such as meeting space, equipment, computers, supplies and communicating with residents. With approval by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, all or part of the funds so appropriated may be used for neighborhood improvement projects. Money also can be issued as grants to public schools and to non-profit organizations that meet certain guidelines.
Neighborhood councils follow a budget process to learn what the community wants to see happen or improved in the fiscal year ahead. Neighborhood Councils are required to submit a board-approved budget at the beginning of each fiscal year.
What authority do neighborhood councils have?
Councils play an advisory role in local politics, and they can’t, on their own, issue laws or rules that govern their areas. They do get to meet regularly with city representatives and receive early notification of meetings and announcements. In some cases, the councils can also opt to have their official positions on an issue printed on the city’s meeting agendas.
How do I get involved?
Getting involved could be as simple as attending meetings of your local neighborhood council, or as involved as running in an election.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment has links to meeting calendars, as well as information on becoming more involved. You can also find information on the regular meeting places and dates for L.A.'s neighborhood councils below, along with links to their websites:
Where is my neighborhood council?
Neighborhood Councils define the boundaries of their communities, with oversight from DONE. You can check out DONE’s listing of certified councils here, or check the map of council boundaries (as of September 2013) below :
Are there other cities with neighborhood council programs?
There are. San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and San Diego all have neighborhood council systems of varying influence and organization, though few receive financial support from the cities of which they’re a part. L.A.’s program is one of the expansive and most expensive programs in the U.S.
- Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE):
- Newton: L.A.'s neighborhood councils (L.A. Times):
- The Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils – This Plan details the workings of the Neighborhood Council system.
- Los Angeles City Charter – In 1999, the City Charter established the Neighborhood Council System and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment which supports the Neighborhood Councils “to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs…” Charter Section 900.
- Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils Coalition