The following post is another in a series of articles we have posted about the evolution of the Neighborhood Council system in the city of Los Angeles. This experiment in participatory democracy seems typical of many in that at first it is often hard for those involved to shed the habits of past governing models and truly entrust the people with decision making power. This article rightfully calls for more popular involvement in overall policy decisions on the functioning of the councils. - Editor
By Greg Nelson
I’ve been making a mistake by stating that our neighborhood council system is based upon a belief by its founders that the goal is to encourage the spread of “participatory democracy.”
I have come to realize that this term leaves open an opportunity for a very broad interpretation by those who resist change in the culture of City Hall. The elitists who can’t bring themselves to accept that better decisions can result from the public’s involvement in government. It saddens me to read the policy that the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners enacted that describes how it will adopt policies.
The commission forms committees of its members that discuss specific issues in private, present them at a commission meeting, and give the public usually a couple of weeks to send in their written comments or trek to its meeting and speak for three minutes, which never occurs at the start of the meeting.
The flaws in this approach are that (1) it is “business as usual”, (2) it is critically important to be part of the drafting process, and (3) the comments, written or verbal, are routinely ignored. There is no exchange of information and ideas. The expertise of the neighborhood council members, which often exceeds that of commissioners, is shunned.
A more recent example occurred last week.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the other agency created to lead the culture change, released a nine-page report on proposed and newly enacted changes to the Neighborhood Council Funding System. The report explained that there would be a 90-day public comment period.
This report and the process are laced with still more flaws.
Neighborhood councils and the public were not part of the drafting of the report. The collective wisdom of the councils could have nixed some bad ideas, noted that some proposed solutions were already in place, and suggested better answers.
But it is extremely difficult for neighborhood council members and the public to provide meaningful comments, regardless of the length of the public comment period, without being provided an explanation of the problem that everyone is trying to solve.
For instance, is it a systemic problem, or one of those far-to-common bureaucratic over-reactions to an isolated problem?
We know that the report was triggered by the fact that at least one neighborhood council president misused some of his council’s funds. We don’t know whether better oversight by those in charge should have caught the problem early on.
We aren’t told how the department will be able to provide the promised greater level of scrutiny when it admittedly doesn’t have enough people to properly monitor the program now, and when half of the program’s staff positions will soon be vacant during a time when the city’s hiring freeze may make it impossible to fill the vacancies.
More correctly, it needs to be said that our neighborhood council system is about promoting “deliberative democracy.”
When City Hall’s community planners hold public meetings with everyone sitting in a circle to discuss the reshaping of a community plan, they are all practicing a form of deliberative democracy. All views are respected, and value is added to the product that will be presented for a final decision.
When BONC and DONE design rules while shut away from the public, they are saying that they find little value in the public’s involvement. They are ignoring the core value that created them. And they are doing nothing to encourage other city agencies to embrace the deliberative democracy concept.
It’s not too late. During the next 90 days, town hall meetings could be held with interested neighborhood council leaders and treasurers. It all needs to begin with the DONE publicly defining the problem.
But it may not happen at all unless neighborhood councils stand up for the reason they were created.
Vol 6 Issue 52
Pub: June 27, 2008