The city’s grand experiment in neighborhood activism is about to take a big hit this year, and some advocates are worried if its spirit will survive.
Under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s latest budget plan, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment will be folded into another city agency, the Community Development Department, reducing its independence, staffing and budget significantly.
The cost-saving move has many of its proponents worried about the survival of the city’s neighborhood council system if its oversight becomes buried within a larger bureaucracy.
“We are not happy,” said Jill Barad, chairwoman of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils. “We are very much against being merged into the CDD. We feel it’s wrong. We believe neighborhood councils should have their own department.”
“CDD handles federal grants. If we are merged into them, we will be caught up in their bureaucracy.
DONE and the neighborhood council system were created under the city’s charter reform approved by voters in 1999. The plan was to give local communities and citizens a greater say in city government, in an attempt to stave off the then-growing San Fernando Valley secession movement.
The councils involve groups of residents from the local communities who meet on a regular basis and get involved in city government issues. While they do not have voting authority over city policies, city officials have increasingly made efforts to seek their opinions when formulating controversial plans.
The councils have continually had to fight for respect at City Hall, but they have shown some success in influencing policy, most notably in their fight against a Department of Water and Power rate increase in 2004. The system has grown to 90 neighborhood councils, each with a budget of $50,000, although Villaraigosa has also proposed to reduce their individual funding.
Al Abrams, vice president of the city’s Board of Neighborhood Commissioners, is confident the system will not only continue, but thrive.
“Community Development has experience with groups like the neighborhood councils and it can provide a different level of support than what we are receiving today,” said Abrams, who also serves on the Tarzana Neighborhood Council.
“They will be able to handle all the accounting matters that take up so much time now. I also hope they can provide some training to some of the neighborhood councils on how to run meetings and get along with each other.”
Abrams said he expects to see the city commission play a greater role – one he welcomes – in helping the neighborhood councils move on to the next stage of involvement with the city.
BH Kim, whose current job as DONE director will be eliminated after the consolidation, said one of the problems that continues to face many neighborhood councils is internal feuding.
Adjusting to new ways
Last week, for example, the Studio City Neighborhood Council ended weeks of contentious debate over one member, former City Council candidate Michael McCue, who was removed from the board over what other members said was unprofessional behavior.
“That is grass-roots democracy,” Kim said. “That is how it works. A bigger problem for many of the groups was they fought too much over issues like the bylaws and how they would conduct their meetings, rather than spending time doing outreach to bring more people in.”
Kim said his biggest concern is whether the neighborhood councils will get the support they need with the city staff overseeing them being cut from 81 to 18.
Abrams said he believes it will be up to the individual neighborhood councils to find a way to make sure they remain active.
Kim said most areas – particularly in the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and Westside where there has been a strong tradition of homeowner organizations – will not have any major problems under the new system.
“They have a history of involvement and are quite sophisticated,” Kim said. “Where I have concern is in poorer and minority areas of the city where this is still new to them.”
Looking to the future
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who said he owes much of his election to neighborhood councils, is chairman of the Education and Neighborhoods Committee and has been looking at what will happen.
“One of the things I’m looking at is how we get the commission more involved,” Krekorian said. “We are looking at ways to give them more managerial responsibilities as we move forward. What I’ve tried to do is focus on the basics and will speak to it during the course of this budget.
“The biggest concern is making sure neighborhood councils remain active and involved.”
Councilman Dennis Zine, who was one of the supporters of the neighborhood groups when he served on the Elected Charter Reform Commission, said he believes the neighborhood councils are at a stage where they will survive with or without a separate department.
“They are supposed to run independent of the department anyway,” Zine said. “They are independent of the city and they are supposed to represent their different communities. So, if they are under a separate department like DONE or the Community Development Department, their functions and responsibilities remain the same.”