Our Far-Flung City Needs Local Councils

George David Kieffer, a senior partner of a Los Angeles law firm, chairs the appointed Charter Reform Commission

The appointed Charter Reform Commission has made a preliminary decision to create a Department of Neighborhoods and to mandate the formation of a system of advisory neighborhood councils in a revised City Charter. Our decisions are preliminary and we will be seeking public comment in the months ahead.

The commissioners were moved by the widespread feeling found in more than 50 public hearings and meetings around the city that the processes of government often are too remote and that decisions often are made in a way that is not responsive to neighborhoods. We also were moved by a belief that the civic renewal required of the city must take hold locally as well as citywide.

In recent weeks, there have been calls for elected neighborhood councils with formal decision-making authority. There are indications that the Elected Charter Reform Commission may be heading in that direction. However, after many months of research and study, public testimony and discussions with key stakeholders, the appointed commission has concluded that the approach we have taken, of advisory neighborhood councils, offers the better opportunity both to increase participation and to maintain effective governance of this city.

We have carefully studied what other cities have done. Citizen participation systems have been used successfully in Portland, Ore., St. Paul, Minn., New York City and other communities. The common features of these systems are that decisions begin at the community level and that such bodies are both advisory and influential.

Our studies show that advisory neighborhood councils can streamline the decision process. When there is no system for community input, which is the situation in Los Angeles, people are forced into guerrilla warfare, chasing decision-makers at all stages of the process. If you fail at one stage, you just keep going or take it to court. Neighborhood councils provide a predictable opportunity for stakeholders to be heard at an early stage.

Consistent with the commission's view that the charter should be a simpler, enabling document, we have decided to place in the charter only the essentials. We placed a Department of Neighborhoods into the charter in order to emphasize the importance we attach to neighborhoods. But we have left the details of how a formal system of neighborhood councils is designed to the people and their representatives. How should boundaries be drawn? How should members be selected? These issues are best left to ordinance rather than creating a charter straitjacket long before we know what will work. For example, we would consider it very unwise to insert into the charter permanent budgetary numbers regarding neighborhood councils.

In bringing a powerful voice to neighborhoods, the appointed commissioners also were mindful of avoiding some of the potential pitfalls that could undermine a system with formal decision-making authority locked into the charter. We were impressed by the fact that no city in America has given formal decision-making power to neighborhood bodies. Cities have chosen to expand input rather than establish a new level of government.

Creating a new level of government would also vastly expand the city's bureaucracy. Elected neighborhood councils with governmental power would have all the responsibilities of government bodies, such as compliance with the Voting Rights Act and one-person, one-vote provisions in federal law, and all the elements of political campaigns, such as fund-raising and special-interest slates.

Further, a system of advisory neighborhood councils would be open to all stakeholders. Under state law, an elected, decision-making level of government would lock out such neighborhood stakeholders as businesses, employees, religious institutions and schools.

The commission does not consider neighborhood councils to be the "magic bullet" that by itself would increase voter turnout, reduce cynicism and create a more responsive, responsible government. No single change would achieve all those things. And some groups are afraid of any form of advisory neighborhood councils. But changing how City Hall does business by reallocating power and structure among top city officials like the mayor and the City Council would not be nearly enough to encourage the civic consciousness this city needs. If there is one phrase we have heard more than any other, it is: "I don't get heard." If we can diminish that feeling, we will make it easier to bring people together around the great civic goals this city must embrace in the next century.

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