Cut Community Activists Some Ethical Slack

Xandra Kayden is a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research

Two years after the new city charter created them, neighborhood councils are edging closer to reality. In October, the city will formally begin certifying community groups that have been organizing themselves.

But two issues could retard progress. They go to the core of community activism in an age of political distrust: How open should these neighborhood groups be in their deliberations (whether they should be subject to California's sunshine law, the Ralph M. Brown Act); and what sort of financial disclosure should participants be required to make to avoid conflicts of interest?

In seeking answers, neighborhood council participants may be getting the worst of both ends of the stick: Even though they are merely advisory, they are being asked to meet the standards of those who have real authority.

Proponents of applying the Brown Act, including the deputy city attorney, who has already ruled to that effect, believe that all the law requires is that the time and place of a neighborhood-council meeting be posted 72 hours in advance in a public place such as on a website, at the local library, supermarket, etc. In most cases, only activists and the concerned will attend the meeting. If the meeting promises to be controversial and attract a lot of people, it probably shouldn't be held in a private home in the first place.

Opponents of applying the act to neighborhood-council meetings contend that many local groups have been able to resolve disputes in their communities precisely because they are private. The atmosphere of a private home is more suitable to reaching consensus than an open forum where participants are reluctant to back off their stated views. Nor, for that matter, can you realistically invite the public to someone's home.

While there has been only one broad statement on a financial disclosure requirement from the city attorney's office, neighborhood councils would be wise to adopt some guidelines on their own. They needn't be as stringent as those governing elected or appointed officials, or even commissioners, who are essentially volunteers and do not earn their livings as a consequence of their participation.

Recommendations by a study group on "Private Involvement in Public Decisions," under the auspices of UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, may serve as the basis for resolving these difficult issues.

While agreeing that a citizen volunteer need not disclose the monetary amounts involved in a potential conflict of interest, the UCLA study group believed there is an obligation to disclose the fact of a conflict. The group recommended that a person with a potential conflict should disclose it to whomever appointed him or her (in this case, perhaps to the council executive committee or the Ethics Commission). Then, a decision should be made whether that person should step back or recuse himself altogether.

Two recommendations of the study group bear on the applicability of the Brown Act to neighborhood councils: agendas and minutes should be filed with an office for later public scrutiny; and someone be appointed as the public contact for those who wish to make their views known about an issue.

Both the Brown Act and financial disclosure are issues that could torpedo a neighborhood council if they got out of control, though the vast majority of council work will be entirely unaffected by ethics regulations. Right now, they are flags for skeptics to rally around, and the communities raising them--mostly longtime homeowner associations and community groups--will probably not be among the first to seek certification, which could put them at a disadvantage. But these kinds of issues, council advocates say, are why neighborhood councils were created in the first place: to help overcome the distance and skepticism inherent in our political culture.

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