Los Angeles Needs Elected Neighborhood Councils

Erwin Chemerinsky is chairman and Bennett Kayser is a member of the Elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission

No issue in the current Los Angeles City Charter reform effort is more important, more controversial or more difficult than whether to create neighborhood councils. After almost a year of study and with the guidance of in-depth reports from two of its committees, the Elected Charter Reform Commission has tentatively decided to propose elected neighborhood councils with decision-making authority. Although many of the details are still to be worked out, the commission overwhelmingly voted that neighborhood councils are a key to creating a more responsive, more accountable and more efficient city government.

The elected commission has held hearings in literally every part of the city and has heard the same complaint everywhere: Downtown city government is too far away and too unresponsive to the needs of the communities. Indeed, it cannot be forgotten that charter reform was inspired, in part, by threats of secession by areas such as the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and Venice. But throughout the city, there is a demand to give local areas much more of a voice in the decisions that directly affect them. Few cities in the country are as large or as diverse as Los Angeles. A bold and innovative structure is needed to govern it--the neighborhood council.

To best ensure that the neighborhood councils are representative of and responsive to their communities, their members should be elected. If those serving on neighborhood councils are appointed by City Council members, they ultimately would be responsive and answerable to those who chose them. But if neighborhood councils are elected by the voters, their constituents will be the voters, not politicians.

Neighborhood councils must have some decision-making authority. People want a real role in governing their community. They already have the ability to advise their council members, and advisory neighborhood councils exist in some districts. But this is not enough; decision-making over some matters should be decentralized so that the many diverse neighborhoods can make their own choices.

For example, the Elected Charter Reform Commission decided that the charter should provide for a small percentage of the city's budget to be divided among the neighborhood councils. Each would be able to use the revenues to purchase additional services or capital projects from the city. One community might decide that it wants its libraries open one more day, while another could choose an additional employee for its parks. Allowing neighborhood councils to make such choices is a way of empowering people in the most important function of city government: the delivery of services.

The elected commission is continuing to examine the appropriate role for neighborhood councils in the land use and planning process. Our challenge is to give the councils a meaningful voice in planning decisions, but not create an additional layer of government that can hinder business and economic growth.

Some have suggested leaving the issue of neighborhood councils to a future City Council. This, however, is a decision against elected neighborhood councils with decision-making authority. No City Council is likely to relinquish its power, and only a charter provision can create an elected decision-making panel.

Some in business have expressed strong opposition to elected neighborhood councils out of fear that they will impede development. Quite the contrary, a simplified planning and permit process might help business. The goal is to devise a role for the councils that satisfies the needs of business, homeowners and labor.

Some have suggested enlarging the City Council as an alternative to neighborhood councils. However, a larger City Council and neighborhood councils are not mutually exclusive; the new charter can include both. Besides, what people most want isn't more politicians downtown; they want a governing role for their communities.

It is true that no city in the country has elected neighborhood councils with decision-making responsibility. But innovation is not necessarily bad. No country had a structure with both a national government and state government until the United States. Los Angeles is a unique city and it needs a government structure that fits its needs. Elected neighborhood councils should be a part of that.

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