Taxpayer-Funded Groups Suffer From Lax Attendance : Apathy Threatens to Kill Simi Citizen Councils

Times Staff Writer

Once touted statewide as a model of grass-roots activism, Simi Valley's neighborhood councils program--which advises city officials on matters ranging from repair of cracked sidewalks to the impact of development projects--is in jeopardy.

The Simi Valley City Council last month gave the four geographically based councils six months to improve attendance, which has fallen to an all-time low since the program was established 18 years ago. In a recent six-month period, for example, one of the 13-member councils only had enough members present once to vote on recommendations to the City Council.

Those familiar with Simi Valley suggest the councils are victims of apathy common to bedroom communities, an overly bureaucratic structure and a lack of compelling issues facing the city. Whatever the reasons for their failure to involve residents, the councils, which together are funded by the city at about $60,000 annually, could be drastically restructured and possibly abolished if they do not bolster attendance by October, officials said.

Said Simi Valley City Councilman Bill Davis: "We've tried just about everything to get them to work. It seems to me there's no point in beating a dead horse, especially when you're doing it with taxpayers' money."

Valuable Voice

But advocates of the councils say residents would lose a valuable voice in city affairs if the program perishes. Although Moorpark and Oxnard also have neighborhood councils, Simi Valley's program is unusual because it receives financial support from the city and its members are appointed by the City Council, said Stanley Moore, a professor of political science at Pepperdine University.

"It's a way to be heard, and without the councils the city would miss out on a lot of good ideas," said John Etter, an engineering technician who recently joined one of the councils and used it as a forum to propose that the city add moisture sensors to its sprinkler systems to conserve water. "The councils ought to be saved."

The program has changed significantly since its founder, Simi Valley's first mayor, Lester D. Cleveland, characterized it in a 1984 article published in the League of California Cities' magazine Western City as part of a revolution by citizens clamoring for a voice in municipal politics. Today, its critics acknowledge the councils' potential value as a means of increasing citizen participation, but say further modifications are needed because board members are out of touch with the residents they represent.

Since the councils were formed in 1970, they have helped draw up an ordinance regulating signs, reviewed countless proposals for construction projects and recommended changes to the city's blueprint for development, known as a General Plan, which is updated periodically, officials said. The councils just completed one revision recently, which may be why interest has slackened, said Mike Stevens, a high school teacher who serves on one of the councils.

Tend to Bypass Councils

But in recent months residents have tended to bypass the neighborhood councils with the juicy issues that do exist, taking their concerns directly to the City Council. One of the councils recently recommended that the Planning Commission approve replacing some vacant buildings on Ralston Avenue near Tapo Street with a rental equipment yard, only to find that nearby residents actually were strongly opposed to the change.

"I was really surprised when they showed up so angry at the Planning Commission meeting," said Albert Rosen, a retired high school teacher who serves on one of the councils. "Next time, we'll let residents know when something comes up that they might be concerned about."

Grahame Watts, the city's neighborhood councils coordinator, said only two flyers were distributed by council members between October and March, the same six-month period in which attendance was so low.

New residents, many of whom commute to work in Los Angeles County, may be unaware that the neighborhood councils exist, Watts said. When the program was originally established, there were five districts representing about 56,000 residents citywide or about 11,200 neighbors each, and residents were excited about their new city, said founder Cleveland, who now lives in Indio. Two years ago, the City Council eliminated one council and redrew the boundaries of the remaining four in an effort to stimulate flagging participation, Davis said.

Today, the four districts represent about 101,000 people, or about 25,000 each. In contrast, Oxnard has 42 councils, each representing a much smaller pool of 3,000 residents each, said Manny Vega, Oxnard's community relations officer.

Ann Singleton, who helped form a citizens group last summer to fight irritating styrene odors emitted by a spa manufacturing plant in the west end of the city, ended up going directly to the City Council with the neighborhood's problem because she wanted quick action. She said she brought the matter to the attention of a neighborhood council, but was told she would have to wait a month until the issue could be listed on the next meeting's agenda.

"I said, 'Forget it, it's too dangerous to wait,' " Singleton said.

Brown Act's Role

Because the neighborhood council members are appointed by the City Council, they are subject to a state law requiring governing bodies to give adequate notice when issues will be discussed, said Moore, the Pepperdine political science professor. The law, known as the Brown Act, was strengthened in the early 1980s, leading to frustrating delays and growing disenchantment with the neighborhood councils, said Simi Valley Councilwoman Ann Rock.

In Moorpark and Oxnard, the councils can immediately respond to citizens' concerns because their members are elected by residents, although participation levels vary there also, officials said.

Simi Valley officials say they are willing to consider abolishing the appointment system if it would save the councils. But their patience is growing thin.

"I don't want to see the program die, but unless it improves soon, it's history," Davis said.

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