The Los Angeles City Council brought its traveling show to the San Fernando Valley last week for the third time in a year. But unlike past forays out of City Hall, the council actually got some work done this time. While it's wise for the City Council to occasionally visit the neighborhoods it represents, meetings outside City Hall traditionally have consisted of little more than plaques and presentations, speeches and smiles. The real work of government often took a bye as agendas were tailored to make the council member hosting the meeting look good to folks in the district.
Last week's meeting at Valley College, though, was a refreshing change. Hosted by Councilman Mike Feuer, the meeting drew an overflow crowd of more than 300 people who had their pick of substantive issues on which to comment. Although action on the most contentious issue of the day--regulation of billboards--was delayed, the council acted on a number of big-ticket items. It approved bonds to build a parking garage in Studio City. It gave the green light to a program that photographs motorists who run red lights. And it hired consultants to help establish business improvement districts along Ventura Boulevard.
Admittedly, many of the items had obvious connections to the Valley and most played well with the crowd. It's hard to argue against making intersections safer or parking easier. But there's nothing wrong with tailoring agendas to match communities when the council hits the road, as long as the council's work gets done. City boards such as the Planning Commission routinely hold meetings in various parts of Los Angeles and match agendas to neighborhoods. Those meetings give local residents a chance to comment on proposals in their neighborhoods without fighting traffic and paying for parking downtown.
The council should learn from its own commissions and make these working tours part of its routine. The costs are small--generally about $5,000--but the benefits are considerable. In a diffuse city like Los Angeles, it can be difficult for the public to get to its government. Sometimes it's easier to take the government to the people. Even so, a number of council members remain critical of regular meetings outside City Hall as unproductive and inconvenient. The Valley College meeting demonstrated that the council can be productive on the road. It will always be inconvenient for the council and its attendant bureaucracy to venture away from Spring Street. But all of them are paid for their trouble--unlike the citizen activists for whom three minutes before the council can cost a day's pay and parking, to boot. The choice is simple. It's between adapting to make Los Angeles work or writing the city off in favor of business as usual. The trips are not a chore; they are an opportunity.