Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Beyond the Ballot Box: Neighborhood Council 2012 Election Wrap-Up

CityWatch, Dec 4, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 97

EMPOWERMENT REPORT - It was just over six months ago that LA’s City Council passed Ordinance #182128, authorizing the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to conduct the 2012 Board elections for LA’s Neighborhood Councils.
The journey began in September of 2011 at the Congress of Neighborhoods when Neighborhood Council representatives packed City Council Chambers and spoke with a unified voice, calling on the Mayor and the City Council to support Neighborhood Councils by ensuring that elections would be conducted in 2012.  See NC Election Map Below.
Since that time, Neighborhood Councils have risen to the occasion, committing to an electoral process that went “Beyond the Ballot Box!” and resulted in outcomes that speak volumes to the character and commitment of the many individuals that make up the Neighborhood Council system.
Within three months of City Council’s ordinance authorizing EmpowerLA’s Elections Division to conduct the elections, the Valley conducted the City’s first elections of the season, raising the standard for the electoral process and then adding elements that only Neighborhood Councils bring to the table.
Independent Election Administrators worked with Neighborhood Councils throughout the Valley to turn Elections into Election Events, to connect neighborhood councils in regional outreach strategies, to innovate in the search for qualified candidates, to enlist the support of volunteers, and to look “Beyond the Ballot Box” as they embarked on the electoral journey.
On all accounts, it was a great success that exceeded expectations!
EmpowerLA focused on Candidates and the Neighborhood Councils delivered: The Citywide rate of Candidates to Open seats was up 28.35% over 2010
Candidates embraced the issues and engaged the voters: The Citywide rate of Voters to Open seats was up 15.79% over 2010 
Neighborhood Councils created community by volunteering at neighboring polls: 429 Volunteers 
The Legacy of the System was infused with the energy of New Voices: 49.6% of those elected are Incumbents, 50.4% of those elected are New Voices
Along the way, EmpowerLA partnered with Neighborhood Councils Citywide and ...
Created a memorable elections experience for more than NINETEEN THOUSAND Angelenos who came to vote at a Neighborhood Council election!
Encouraged more than SIXTEEN HUNDRED Candidates as they campaigned for a Neighborhood Council seat.
Partnered with more than FOUR HUNDRED Volunteers and demonstrated the power of collaboration.
Created SEVENTY-FIVE Neighborhood Council Election Events that went Beyond the Ballot Box.
Organized TWELVE Neighborhood Council regions and encouraged the pollination of ideas and innovation.
Conducted TWENTY SIX Leadership Academy workshops, TWELVE Candidate Workshops, EIGHT Poll Worker Workshops and Candidate Forums with such frequency that we lost count.
Supported new Neighborhood Council Partners with Board Orientations, Treasurer Workshops, and Board Seatings.
Exceeded expectations by doing TWICE as much in HALF the time for HALF the cost.
NC Boardmembers, Candidates, Voters, and Volunteers have offered lots of feedback and two things are clear:
1) Neighborhood Councils took ownership of the 2012 elections, delivering an Election Experience that exceeded the standard established in the 2010 elections.
2) Neighborhood Councils did what no one else can do, adding unique elements to the Election Experience that reflect the unique personality and character of each community.
I am proud to have partnered with LA’s Neighborhood Councils on the 2012 Electoral journey and am grateful for all that they do.
Let EmpowerLA know what you thought of the NC elections here. 


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Neighborhood Council Elections: Beyond the Ballot Box

CityWatch, Aug 10, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 64

RETHINKING LA-Voters in the Northeast Valley turned out for the first of 11 regional Neighborhood Council elections, exceeding expectations and raising the standard for participatory democracy.

It was just two months ago that the City Council passed the ordinance that empowered the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to partner with Neighborhood Councils in conducting their elections. Sylmar, Pacoima, Foothill Trails District, Sunland-Tujunga, Panorama City, Mission Hills, Arleta, and Sun Valley Area Neighborhood Councils worked together to engage voters and stir interest in the elections and in the greater goal of regional connectivity.

At the end of the polling day, five Neighborhood Councils had exceeded their 2010 voter participation and two had historic high turnouts. Arleta failed to muster the necessary candidates to warrant an election and will be conducting a Board Affirmation in late August.

Statistical highlights include a Candidates per Open Seat ratio that was up 42.09 % and a Voters to Open Seat ratio that was up 29.84 %. There were 39 contested seats and 39 volunteer poll workers, stirring voter participation and demonstrating community support.

EmpowerLA’s approach to the elections was to move beyond the Ballot Box, aiming for greater regional connectivity, long-term outreach strategies, significant voter engagement, and opportunities to participate beyond polling day.

On all counts, participating Neighborhood Councils can say they went beyond the Ballot Box.

The eight participating Neighborhood Councils grew tighter as the election day grew closer, covering for each other and allowing successful strategies to resonate.

Outreach strategies include the Rally in the Valley, Candidate Workshops, Leadership Academy, Daily News and LA Times editorials, and a wide variety of traditional Direct Mail and Print campaigns complemented by everything from lawn signs to handbills to Candidate Corrals filled with passionate candidates and supporters.

Voters were given the opportunity to go beyond the ballot box with an EmpowerLA survey that yielded a 38% success rate and allowed voters to weigh in on the issues that drew them to the polls.

The issues that are most important to voters are Public Safety (58%), Zoning & Land Use (40%), Planning & Development (29%), and Youth Programs (24%).

Voters indicate that they heard about the elections from the Candidates (56%), Board Members (31%), Council meetings (30%), and Council Newsletters (18%).

Volunteers, Election Hours, and Polling Locations all received high marks (52%, 54%, 67% respectively) while 22% called for better outreach and 13% wanted more signage.

Voters at several polling places were given an opportunity to engage beyond the polling place, by signing up for Neighborhood Council committees, by enlisting as participants on community projects, and by joining the EmpowerLA elections team as volunteers.

The Official results for Sylmar, Pacoima, Foothill Trails District, Sunland-Tujunga, Panorama City, Mission Hills, and Sun Valley can be found at EmpowerLA.org.

The next round of Neighborhood Council elections take place in the Northwest Valley on September 8, 2012. Each Neighborhood Council has its own polling place and its own hours, all on the same day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

My First Nurse-In and the Right to Breastfeed in Public Places

CityWatch, July 24, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 59

RETHINKING LA - My wife Enci and I have marched in the streets, we’ve turned out with signs and picketed, we've Stormed the Bastille, ridden Critical Mass, and filibustered public meetings from the public speaker’s podium. We’ve gone to Sacramento, we’ve spoken Truth to Power, and along the way we’ve sat-in, stood-up and even laid-down in a die-in.

But this weekend was a first for us. We joined dozens of nursing moms and their families at a local restaurant for a Nurse-In, all in response to a recent incident when a nursing mom was asked to feed her child in the bathroom.
The original incident and the resulting Nurse-In both took place at Scarantino’s, a small family-owned and operated restaurant with a 45 year legacy that includes this mission statement; “We want our service to be such that every customer feels as welcomed guests in our home.”

A woman joined her family for a celebratory dinner and began nursing her child at the table. Another guest complained and an employee of the restaurant asked the nursing mom to leave the dining room for the more intimate bathroom.

Personally, I’ve never asked a guest in my home to eat in the bathroom and I can’t imagine how a nursing mom would consider herself a welcomed guest when banished from the dining room.

But of course, my opinion is simply my opinion.

More importantly, it’s the law and nursing moms have California Civil Code, Section 43.3, on their side. "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a mother may breastfeed her child in any location, public or private, except the private home or residence of another, where the mother and the child are otherwise authorized to be present."

It takes two kinds of ignorance to ban a nursing mom from a public place. The first is simple ignorance of the law. The second is a far deeper form of ignorance, one that stigmatizes a natural and healthy practice that has been around a lot longer than the hang-ups that might motivate someone to complain when they see a mother nurse a child.

Nursing moms have been in the news a great deal of late, typically involved in incidents where an employee or security guard seizes that rare moment of power where they get to say “No! Put that Boob away!”

Denny’s was the subject of Nurse-Ins over the weekend, all in response to a mom who dared to nurse her child at the table with the rest of the family. LACMA recently incurred the wrath of LA’s increasingly larger community of nursing moms when a security guard asked a nursing mom to get a shroud or leave the public place.

Time magazine took on the subject and took the provocative route less traveled when it posted a nursing mom on the cover along with her three-year old son.

The decision to nurse a child is a huge commitment that includes positioning a growing child’s nutritional needs as the driving force that determines schedules and nursing activity.

Nursing moms experience a formula-centric environment that views the lactating breast as an affront to all that is perfect about our upside-down prioritized culture.

When Enci and I made our first visit to the Pediatrician, we were given a lovely gift bag that turned out to be filled with formula and formula accessories. Liquid formula, powdered formula, small bottles, flat bottles, large bottles, bottle warmers, bottle coolers, bottle insulators, and it all matched.

Missing from this generous bag of support was a list of foods that encourage a lactating mom and a list of foods that interfere with lactation.

It wasn’t until we did our own research that we discovered that Enci should be eating more oats, ginger, avocado, dates, and coconut milk. We navigated the course on our own as we uncovered all of the “anti-plactagogues” that are common in our diet, including parsley, peppermint, spearmint, and sage.

Imagine that! So many foods that interfere with lactation and not a word from our corporate sponsored Pediatrician.

As for Scarantino’s, the Nurse-In took place on the sidewalk and in the restaurant.

The sidewalk was covered with playmats and families made themselves at home with children, toys, and nursing moms and happy babies. On such a busy street, the sidewalk took on a festive mood not typical of protest actions. There were protest signs and the mom who suffered the original insult was there, refusing to spend another dime at Scarantino’s until she received an apology.

Inside the busy restaurant, the tables were full, and nursing moms were the dominant force in the noisy dining room.

Three elderly guests who arrived in the middle of the Nurse-In sat down next to us with a grumble, advising the manager that perhaps it was time to call the police on those who blocked the sidewalk. They quickly dropped the subject when it came time to order and proceeded to grill the waiter on the ingredients of dishes, explaining that they all had very specific dietary restrictions.

I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will be before waiters are as sensitive to the diet of lactating moms as they are to the dietary restrictions of seniors, but that is for another day.

Baby Sydney charmed our geriatric neighbors and we enjoyed a very delightful and delicious dinner, complemented by excellent service, and not an eyebrow was raised as nursing children throughout the dining room enjoyed their meals along with their families and strangers alike.

To quote a mom, “It was a delicious protest!”

It was also much more. It was successful.

The manager involved in the initial incident admitted that he didn’t know the law and acknowledged that he broke the law. He added that he didn’t want litigation. He stepped outside and approached the mom who was originally asked to use the bathroom when nursing her child and he apologized, getting a hug in return and earning a great deal of respect from those who watched him swallow his pride and treat the moms as if they were welcomed guests in his home.

Enci enjoyed the community of nursing moms and found the protest to be an uplifting and positive experience. Sydney made some new friends and left his first protest happy and well-fed. As for me, I was thrilled to participate in civil disobedience that revolved around a dining table, one that was loaded with such a delicious Italian meal.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Rumors of the Brown Act’s Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

CityWatch, July 17, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 57

NEIGHBORHOODS LA - California’s financial woes resulted in a state budget that failed to fund the Brown Act mandate that specifies 72 hour posting of agendas, resulting in a statute that lacks enforcement teeth. This passive suspension of the Brown Act posting requirement has caused many to wonder if the City Council and the Neighborhood Councils were now permitted to conduct the people’s business without notifying the public. The answer is “No.”

LA’s City Council is bound by many levels of authority, from Federal to State to local, and when all else fails, it is their own rules that specify: Rule #76 - The Agenda for each regular meeting of a Council Committee shall be posted at least 72 hours before the meeting. It shall contain a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting. (This rule can’t be suspended by the City Council)

LA’s Neighborhood Councils are also bound by many levels of authority and when all else falls short or fails to address an issue, it is the bylaws that govern the actions of the Council.

This past Friday, a Neighborhood Council President magnanimously declared that in spite of California’s suspension of the Brown Act requirement to post agendas 72 hours in advance of a meeting, the Council would continue to honor the Brown Act provisions out of a commitment “to serving our stakeholders in a transparent, open and inclusive manner.”

The press release failed to note that the Council’s bylaws require the Council to exceed the Brown Act’s requirements for posting agendas, demonstrating that the Brown Act is just one of many layers of authority that govern the actions of Neighborhood Councils.

California’s Brown act amounted to just 686 words when it was introduced to the California Legislature by Ralph M. Brown in 1953. Since then it has grown significantly and along the way, California passed 2004’s Prop 1A, known as Protection of Local Government Revenues, which required the State of California to pay the cost of all mandated requirements at the local level “or suspend their operation.”

Before Brown Act foes jump too high with joy, 2004 also saw the passage of Prop 59 which requires “right of access to information” with regard to government actions.

The brouhaha over the Brown Act and the actions of some local agencies that sent invoices to the State of California for actions that they would have already taken, specifically preparing agendas and then posting them, is simply a tempest in a teapot.

It has been said that “"Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”

In the case of LA’s City Council and Neighborhood Councils, our collective character is revealed by the fact that the debate is typically over what is the legal minimum rather than what is the maximum possible.

Terry Francke of CalAware has much more to say on the subject of California’s Brown Act suspension, including this “Good News, Bad News” prognosis.

“The good news is that the worst of the anxieties result from a hugely exaggerated understanding of what has happened and what the result might be.  The bad news is that the path to a permanent end to such crises is vulnerable to the same species of dubious economy trigger that caused the crises in the first place.   And an Assembly committee is using that trigger to make sure that the public gets no chance to end such situations.”

Francke points out that this isn’t the first time that an unfunded mandate resulted in the suspension of enforcement activity, but that the entire scenario has a solution that only requires the actions of some of LA’s local Assembly members, including Blumenfield, Gatto, Fuentes, Davis, Hall, Mitchell, and Pérez.

The current dialogue on the Brown Act has turned out to be a character revealing exercise for the City Council and the neighborhood Councils, and most importantly, for the California Assembly members who have a simple solution in their hands, one that would result in a simple constitutional requirement: “Each public body shall provide public notice of its meetings and shall publicly disclose any action taken.”

LAPD Chalks Its Rubber Bullet Behavior Up to Vandalism

CityWatch, July 17, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 57

HOW LA’S DOWNTOWN ARTWALK BECAME A CRIME SCENE - When Lance Armstrong came to Los Angeles for a bike ride with 700 of his closest friends, the streets ran yellow with chalked messages of hope and encouragement. Mayor Villaraigosa and then City Council President Eric Garcetti stood in the middle of a heavily chalked Sunset Boulevard to welcome Lance to Hollywood and then the LAPD arrived, not to arrest the chalkers, but to escort the cyclists down Sunset and up Vine to the Ricardo Montalban Theatre.

Waiting inside were Ben Stiller, Ben Harper, Shepard Fairey, LiveStrong CEO Doug Ulman and Nike CEO Mark Parker. It was a night that celebrated the power of Art, Culture, and Sports in changing the world.

For the hundreds of people who couldn’t get inside the Theatre for the program, the streets were their canvas and they spent the evening leaving their mark with yellow chalk provided by LiveStrong.

The LAPD never objected. In fact their supportive presence lent an air of legitimacy to the activity, after all, it was just chalk.

About a month later, Jesus Castillo was riding his bike home from work when he was run down from behind by a drunk driver who pinned him against a parked car, backed up, and then drove away leaving Jesus to die on Glendale Boulevard in Echo Park.

Cyclists descended on the scene with a Ghost Bike and boxes of chalk, memorializing the tragic incident with a die-in ceremony and with chalked messages that filled Glendale Boulevard.

The LAPD were there in force, standing by as the press covered the event, under the watchful eye of Eric Garcetti’s Deputy.

The streets were yellow, the LAPD were mellow, and eventually everyone rode off into the night.

Chalking the streets is one of the most non-invasive mechanisms of communication available to the masses, it’s quiet, cheap, temporary, and it’s actually quite fun.

Doubters only have to look at events such as Park(ing)Day LA, ArtCycle, and the Olive Festival where children are thrilled to fill the streets with chalked artwork and adults marvel at the skills of the internationally recognized chalk artists who come from around the world to ply their trade, street chalking.

It’s against this backdrop that the LAPD’s actions of last week must be examined.

According to reports, OccupyLA protesters took up arms, in this case pastel chalk wrapped in paper with notes explaining their position, and the seeds of discontent were sown on the streets of Los Angeles during Downtown LA’s monthly Art Walk.

The LAPD responded, there was an acceleration of tension, a tactical alert was called, and the LAPD arrived from all over the city armed with less-than-lethal weapons which they unleashed on the crowd.

The LAPD Commander on the scene gave the command and LAPD officers fired rubber bullets, bean bags, and tear gas at the Art Walk crowd, many of whom claim they were caught in the midst of an action that came with no warning and no opportunity to evacuate.

As the debate over how a non-violent pastel chalk protest turned into a violent melee continues, a petition is circulating calling for an investigation into the LAPD’s heavy-handed handling of the incident.

At the heart of the matter is this simple question. How did the LAPD allow itself to be so easily goaded into less-than-lethal violence in the middle of a crowded public event?

When participants in an advertised Chalk Walk during a crowded Art Walk can so easily draw a violent response from the LAPD, it’s time to evaluate the performance of the professional peace officers responsible for the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world.

As one chalker wrote: “Thanks for tainting the justice system.”

We really do deserve better!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What NCs Learn from City Council: Some Good, Some Bad, Some Illegal

CityWatch, July 13, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 56

RETHINKING LA - Neighborhood Councils learn much from watching LA’s City Council in action, some of it good, some of it bad, and some of it illegal. For example, when the City Council doesn’t have a quorum of members present, it can’t start the meeting, setting up a charming situation where the City Council President twiddles his thumbs while the public grows restless. It has become tradition, in the City Council and subsequently in Neighborhood Councils, to fill this non-meeting time with announcements and public comment.

There are a few problems with this scenario.

The first is that the professionals who run the largest city in the most populated state in the most powerful country in the world can’t show up on time, leaving the public to watch as the City Council President send assistants to call Councilmembers, urging them to get to Council Chambers so that the City Council can convene the meeting.

There’s no greater insult to the public than to run the meetings with a stopwatch as a tool for controlling the public but as the same time forgive tardiness from the members. It’s an unacceptable double-standard.

The second is that the presiding officer has a charming habit of filling that non-quorum dead-air with announcements, public comment, and other “noise.” This may fill the dead air, but it also sends a clear message to those who have shown up to participate in the people’s business that their public comment won’t even make it to the traditional deaf ears, it will simply be directed at empty seats.

The third problem is that the City Council considers the “noise” that takes place as they scramble for a quorum as sufficient public comment to satisfy their Brown Act requirement to provide the public the opportunity to address the body during the meeting for public comment. It doesn’t.

This is where Neighborhood Councils find themselves imitating the City Council and then breaking the law.

The City Council and the Neighborhood Councils alike are required to agendize their meetings with four minimum elements that include public comment on items not on the agenda.

It’s not optional or suggested it’s required. When the Council finally reaches quorum is when the public gets its opportunity to speak, even if they’ve spoken before the meeting started.

If the Council finds itself pressed for time, that’s a limitation that is the responsibility of the Council, not the public and it is not justification for the Council to dispense with their mandate to provide the public with the opportunity to address the Council with public comment.

As for that “dead-air” time that takes place as the Council waits for a quorum, one way to deal with it would be to spend that time searching for members of the public who would like to occupy those empty seats. That would be a much better use of time, it would address the cavalier behavior of the non-quorum councils, and it would motivate tardy members to show up on time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Want Better Press? Be Better Press

CityWatch, July 10, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 55

NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS - Jim Newton’s recent editorial in the LA Times paid tribute to a decade of Neighborhood Council struggle and stirred two responses from those embroiled in LA’s civic engagement battle.

Some folks were tickled to find LA’s Neighborhood Council system given a nod by Newton, a longtime observer of LA’s Charter reform movement and LA’s grassroots efforts to activate its “95 neighborhoods in search of a city.” Others were quick to criticize Newton, exclaiming “A column on NCs and no perspective from any one on an NC? Really?”

There are a couple of kinds of complaints that are common when it comes to coverage from the local press, “How come we can’t get any press?” and “You call that good coverage?”

When Newton takes a look at Neighborhood Councils and the last decade of civic engagement, he opines “they have yet to prove either as revolutionary as their backers hoped or as obstructionist as their opponents feared.”

He might have added that Neighborhood Councils are simply not good press.

One critic of Newton’s editorial takes him to task saying “To be blunt, I understand that rolodex reporting, strawmen conflicts, and he said/she said commentary is part and parcel of daily journalism; it is also why paid circulation of dailies has crashed.”

I would contend that if Neighborhood Councils want better press, they need to be better press and here are three ways to make that happen.

First, be available. A journalist with a deadline is hard pressed to quote Neighborhood Council leaders if they don’t take phone calls. Granted, there are typically email contacts on each Neighborhood Council website but print media works a little faster and anyone with a story to tell has a spokesperson who will take calls and forward information.

Neighborhood Councils that want great press need to be available.

Second, be quotable. Journalists, even the “he said/she said” variety, simply need quotes that want to be read. Neighborhood Commissioner Douglas Epperhart has been quoted more than a few times on many topics and he attributes it to his ability to speak in full sentences that include an interesting word. “It was great!” is not a newsworthy but “They were feisty and opinionated!” will turn up in print.

Neighborhood Councils that want great press need to be quotable.

Finally, be good press. Journalists love great stories, ones that feature a hero, a struggle, the risk of failure, and an against-all-odds outcome. If Neighborhood Councils want great press, they have to be great press. Be the story, tell the story, and cultivate a relationship with local journalists so that they call you when they are digging for information, when they need a quote, and when they are in search of the next big story.

In other words, some stories write themselves and if Neighborhood Councils want to get credit for their hard work, it is imperative that they become great press instead of simply standing by and wondering why they get left out.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tweeting, Texting, Liking and Other Weapons of Mass Distraction

CityWatch, July 6, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 54

RETHINKING LA’S NC’S - If a group of Neighborhood Council leaders got together at the local library to discuss public business without inviting the public, it would constitute a violation of the Brown Act but it would hardly be grounds for closing the library. After all, the library wasn’t party to the crime, it was merely the scene of the crime.

The more appropriate action would be to address the people who engaged in the public’s business without posting agendas, inviting the public and adhering to the requirements of California’s Open Meeting law.

Imagine the same group of Neighborhood Council leaders getting together to celebrate Independence Day at a community BBQ where the conversation drifts into a discussion of business on the agenda for their upcoming Board meeting.

The actions of the community leaders would constitute a violation of the Brown Act but it would hardly justify a ban on BBQs or Independence Day parties. Again, the celebration wasn’t a party to the crime, it was just the reason for the gathering at which the crime was committed.

In both cases the Brown Act violations should be addressed by focusing on the people who are engaged in the illegal behavior, not on the library or BBQ where the acts took place.

When it comes to physical places, this seems like common sense, yet when the conversation shifts to the digital arena, common sense is not so common.

When Neighborhood Council leaders engage in digital violations of the Brown Act by participating in a Yahoo Group or a Google Group where they discuss Board business, it is not Yahoo or Google that is responsible for the crime, it is the participants.

And yet, Neighborhood Councils find themselves closing Yahoo Groups and Google Groups for fear that an illegal act will break out on their digital property, a fearful response that is the equivalent of closing libraries and banning celebrations to stop bad behavior.

Terry Francke of CalAware writes “The only concern of the Brown Act is that physical congregations or digital linkups, online or otherwise, not be used to build majority consensus about something the members should be reserving to meetings.”

Some of the best tools for engaging the public are in the digital arena but ignorance of the Brown Act and fear of violating the law have immobilized Neighborhood Council leaders to the point of absurdity, immobilizing outreach efforts in debates that are reminiscent of Morse Code vs Semaphore debates.

It’s not the tools that turn actions or inactions into Brown Act violations, it is the process of engaging in the people’s business without including the public. It’s that simple.

Francke points out that “Small rural school and special district boards all over the state, with not much if any more resources than a Neighborhood Council find they can get business done without violating the law.  I think it's a matter of adequate training and coaching by those who know about the Brown Act and care about the viability of NCs.”

Neighborhood Councils are engaged in an uphill battle to engage the public and now, more than ever, it is imperative that all the tools are available for communicating and publicizing agendas, meetings, and opportunities to get involved.

From word-of-mouth to flyers to online forums to social media, Neighborhood Councils need to employ the full quiver of communication tools if they are to fulfill their city charter mandate to “To promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

LA Municipal Election Field Flooded with Neighborhood Council Veterans

CityWatch, July 3, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 53

RETHINKING LA - Jim Newton, Editor at Large of the LA Times, contends that Neighborhood Councils “have yet to prove either as revolutionary as their backers hoped or as obstructionist as their opponents feared.”

Newton’s editorial offers his perspective as a journalist who covered the Charter Reform Commission during the days when Neighborhood Councils were in equal parts - City Hall threat and grassroots appeasement. Since those days of promise, Neighborhood Councils have struggled for their identity, for their survival, and for their relevance.

City Hall and the media seem to have a common approach to judging the success of Neighborhood Councils, one that has existed since the beginning and is based on the impact of their advisory role.

This focus on the original purpose of Neighborhood Councils has interfered with an appraisal of Neighborhood Councils based on an unintended outcome, one with greater ramifications and potential impact than the Charter Commission anticipated or predicted.

LA’s municipal elections are scheduled for March 5, 2013 and the field is flush with Neighborhood Council veterans, people who cut their political teeth fighting in the local trenches.

Cary Brazeman of Mid City West Community Council and Ron Galperin of Bel Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council are vying for the City Controller’s office, both armed with experience they picked up as local advocates fighting to engage their community and hold government accountable.

Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council has fielded two candidates for City Council with William Morrison running for CD1 and Manuel Aldana Jr. running for CD9.

The West Valley’s Council District 3 is well represented by candidates that mastered the City Hall ropes in their roles as Neighborhood Council Presidents. Cary Iaccino, Chairman of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, and Joyce Pearson, former President of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council, both reached a point where they claim that the only option was to run for office.

Council District 13, Mayoral Candidate Eric Garcetti’s home for the last 12 years, is a hotbed of Neighborhood Council candidates, running in the most crowded field of the eight City Council seats up for election.

Jose Sigala, President of Greater Echo Park Elysian Neighborhood Council, Scott Crawford of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, Rueben Martinez of the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, and Sam Kbyshyan of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council are all running in a clear demonstration that the Neighborhood Councils have gone beyond the original mandate.

Adding gravitas to the CD13 race is performance of Alexander Cruz De Ocampo of Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council who was the first to raise $50,000 and the appearance of BongHwan “BH” Kim, General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, in the race.

Neighborhood Councils may still struggle with the Brown Act, with agendas, and with Community Impact Statements, but perhaps that floundering activity has had a refining impact on the participants, honing the rough edges and preparing them for City Hall and the opportunity to put their local sensitivities to work on larger issues that median strip cleanups and budget recommendations.

City Hall insiders have long learned that courting Neighborhood Councils is essential to moving forward and now that election season is underway, it’s hard not to find Assembly, Senate, Mayoral and Council candidates on the Neighborhood Council trail, swearing their allegiance to local leadership and promising eternal connectivity and access.

The crowded Mayoral race includes perennial candidate YJ Draiman of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and Kevin James who spent years partnering with Neighborhood Councils on issues such as Measure B and Budget LA and giving them a voice on his radio show.

As the critics ponder the future of Neighborhood Councils and contemplate their relevance, the fact that they have given birth to so many candidates for municipal office that bears witness to their true potential and capacity for shaping the dialogue and bringing the neighborhoods to City Hall.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Neighborhood Councils: Death by Meeting!

CityWatch, June 29, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 52

RETHINKING LA - Neighborhood Councils face many obstacles as they set out to “promote more citizen participation and make government more responsive to local needs” and the most formidable is the threat of “Death by Meeting!”

In many ways, Neighborhood Councils have become the enemy, taking on the bad habits that were the original seeds of discontent when the Battle Cry of Neighborhood Councils was “Let me in!” Neighborhood Council agendas look like City Council agendas, far from informative and even farther from inviting or interesting.

Neighborhood Council meetings look like City Council meetings, some going so far as to require sign-in sheets (in violation of the Brown Act) and identification of speakers (in violation of the Brown Act) because “That’s how they do it at City Hall!”

The loudest message that Neighborhood Councils can send to City Hall is not by email or by Community Impact Statement or by Board Resolution, it’s with behavior.

If Neighborhood Councils are committed to “promoting more citizen participation in government,” it will start with better agendas that actually inform the public and entice them to participating, not the current City Council knockoff that requires a bureaucratic decoder ring to figure out that ZA-2012-454-CE has something to do with that restaurant everybody is excited about and that ZA-2012-2258-CUB has something to do with the development that is causing much dismay.

When journalists cover Neighborhood Council meetings, they make them sound interesting by talking about the relevant topics that were discussed, the passionate speakers who participated, the delicious fare from local eateries that some councils feature.

Tiffany Kelly, now writing for the LA Times, had a knack for storytelling that turned ordinary and routine meetings into the local marketplace of ideas, stirring interest in her readers and prompting them to participate in local events.

The Woodland Hills Patch is able to convey the entire agenda of the Woodland Hills - Warner Center Neighborhood Council in simple language that makes it sound interesting, inviting, and even relevant.

If Neighborhood Councils are able to entice the public to participate, the next step to avoiding “Death by Meeting” is to make things interesting.

Even Walmart has a Greeter, someone with a special gift for saying “Hi!” If Neighborhood Council members hope to be treated with respect, it starts at the front door and requires that strangers get a big welcome when they give up their evening and venture into a Neighborhood Council meeting.

That greeting must be followed up with an introduction and a process that is inviting, not exclusive. Sign-In sheets and Speaker Cards are an option, not a requirement. Participation is the right of the public, not a privilege, and the process should reinforce that at every turn.

Once the public is in attendance, make the meeting interesting and avoid repeating the painful housekeeping tasks that kill a meeting.

Watching a Board debate corrections to meeting minutes is a sure-fire way to communicate “contempt of public” to an audience that is there to partner with the Council in making the neighborhood a better place for everybody.

Successful Neighborhood Councils know their audience and organize the agenda accordingly. Only the sadistic can look at a room full of people in attendance for an agenda item and hold them through all kinds of painful “business” while the energy in the room is depleted as a dwindling crowd waits for their topic.

Finally, if Neighborhood Councils have any hope for engaging the public and “making government more responsive to local needs,” it will start with a well-organized agenda that allows speakers and audience to plan their evening and know when their item will be heard.

Lots of people who present to Neighborhood Councils could attend two and three evenings if there were some method of actually organizing meetings so that presenters didn’t sit for hours looking at the agenda and wondering if they missed their moment of glory.

This isn’t about one person’s time being more important than another person’s, it’s about operating efficiently and with respect so that Neighborhood Councils can draw more, not less, interaction with City Management, Neighborhood Partners, local organizations, and the public.

The quickest way to end “Death by Meeting” is with agendas that are written for the public, programming that plays to the audience, and meeting time management that encourages participation.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Experts Split on Whether the Brown Act will Kill LA’s Neighborhood Councils

CityWatch, June 26, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 51

RETHINIKING LA - The mere suggestion that it might be time to revisit California’s open-meeting law with a Sunshine Ordinance draws two kinds of responses, best summed up as “It’s about time that common sense prevailed!” and “Have you joined the regulatory race to the bottom?” California’s Brown Act is currently under attack amidst charges that it is an outdated law that lacks contemporary teeth, allowing the more sophisticated municipal authorities to abuse it while the smaller community based parties find themselves encumbered by its complexity and liability.

On the one hand, the LA County Board of Supervisors acts with complete disregard for the Brown Act requirements that the people’s business be conducted in public. On the other hand, Neighborhood Councils close their Facebook accounts and create email firewalls out of fear that their digital conversations might qualify as a serial meeting in violation of the Brown Act.

As for Terry Francke’s suggestion that it might be time to follow the lead of other cities, both small and large, with an updating of the half-century old Brown Act, the feedback was both supportive and dismissive. And now it’s public!

On the one side came this message from a former member of the US Foreign Service who also participated in his local Neighborhood Council and points to the Brown Act as one of the reasons for dropping out.

“It seems to me that the spirit if not the letter of the Brown act could be preserved without “secret cabals and back-room politics”  if written communication between NC members (e-mail) was permitted as long as copies were sent to the NC archives.

“Anyone could read them there (even though it seems very few care about anything), and so the history of how a decision was reached could be preserved, without it all having to be done orally at NC meetings squeezed for time and often in confusion.

“None of the things an NC does are inherently secret, but having more time, over a matter of weeks instead of minutes, could result in better drafted resolutions with a chance to think about them and ponder unintended consequences for a while before a vote is taken.  Most of the problems I have seen come from the perceived prohibition on pre-meeting discussion of a topic.

Haste may make waste, but it also results in bad politics.”

Speaking for the other side came this response from a lawyer who is an expert in the Brown Act and the Public Records Act, both of which he relies on as he advocates on behalf of the people.

“Your complaint is that so many people violate the law that we should abolish the law.  If the law were stupid, like the pot laws, yes, but if the laws protect us from fraud and cronyism, then No. We need better education, but some people like ignorance.”

“If you tinker with the Brown Act for NCs, you'll find huge loopholes for City Councils, etc.  Already, the Brown Act is very weak on remedies.  The last thing this country needs to do is to encourage more fraud.

“Corruption and incompetence are the core evils that are killing LA and the nation as a whole.  In fact, corruption has spread far into Europe.  We need more ethical people and reducing laws that require them to act right even when they do not want to will never build a moral society.”

Whew!

While the debate over the Brown Act continues to simmer, it’s clear that the current scenario must be addressed with better education and enforcement so that those who are violating California’s Open Meeting commitment are held accountable while those who are acting appropriately can be relieved of the fear of liability and legal action.

Through it all, it is incumbent on our leadership to set the standard for compliance and for enforcement with their behavior.

In other words, it’s up to the people to hold the LA County Board of Supervisors accountable and for the City Council, Committees, and Commissions to demonstrate an inspired approach to conducting the people’s business in an open and transparent manner.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Will the Brown Act Kill LA’s Neighborhood Councils?

CityWatch, June 22, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 50

RETHINKING LA - When it comes to California’s Brown Act and Public Records Act commitment to open meetings and transparency, LA’s Neighborhood Councils are held to the same high standard as the LA County’s Board of Supervisors and LA’s City Council.

On the one hand this seems fair, after all, we’re all in this together and the spirit of the law is simply good governance.

But when the rubber hits the road, Neighborhood Councils are completely out-gunned and the result has had a chilling effect on grassroots democracy.
Neighborhood Councils continue to waste energy debating the impact of Facebook pages on their ability to engage in a public discussion without engaging in a serial meeting, a violation of the Brown Act. Unfortunately, the threat of liability has prompted some Councils to simply shut down their Social Media accounts as a solution to conducting their business openly and in accordance with the law.

Some Neighborhood Councils have been pummeled with Public Record Requests to the point that their solution is to simply refuse all documents and materials so that they can honestly respond to invasive and cumbersome requests by saying, “We have nothing!” which is an unfortunate result to the threat of liability.

Other Neighborhood Councils live in fear of violating the Brown Act through email conversations between Board members, resulting in firewalls that literally separate and isolate community members rather than bringing them together.

These three examples demonstrate the unfortunate outcome of the open meeting commitment: community members who disengage from their community and each other, all in response to threats of liability.

Terry Francke, President of Calaware, a non-profit committed to supporting and defending open government, dismisses the concerns by explaining, “The only concern of the Brown Act is that physical congregations or digital linkups, online or otherwise, not be used to build majority consensus about something the members should be reserving to meetings.  I don't know what kind of participation is contemplated, but if there's no contemporaneous or serial discussion by the majority of the same topic, there should be no risk.”

Francke knows what he’s talking about. He just settled a lawsuit with the LA County Supervisors in which he charged them with multiple violations of the Brown Act, including closed-door meetings and a conference call with the Governor, resulting in the Board paying $14,750 and including a statement regarding the September 2011 meetings in the official "Statement of Proceedings'' for the board.

On the one hand, large municipal bodies such as the County Supervisors and LA’s City Council repeatedly challenge the Brown Act and the Public Records Act with their behavior, supported by their deep pockets and their abundant legal counsel.

On the other hand, community volunteers find themselves vulnerable and overwhelmed by restrictions that have a chilling impact on their desire to engage the community and advise City Hall.

Francke suggests that it is time for Neighborhood Councils to enjoy some sunshine, in the form of a city Sunshine Ordinance.

“The ordinance would have to be done by initiative and would have to amend the city charter.  That's a tall order in terms of signature gathering, but Los Angeles residents have one advantage in such efforts that exists nowhere else in the state: the Neighborhood Councils. If most NC members, followers and alumni could agree on a common text for reform, they could provide an experienced and highly motivated corps of petition circulators to get the measure on the ballot.

“A Sunshine Ordinance could not only increase the visibility of what is done at City Hall and in the departments and the accountability of those who do it (or fail to), but address problems like the one you raise in your most recent column: the failure of adequate notice to the NCs of matters to be docketed by the council.  In broad terms, the Sunshine Ordinance strategy is pretty simple: Come up with a list of changes for which you can easily explain the need to the public, creating a reasonable agenda for public participation; present it to the council for adoption; watch the council attempt to water it down, stall its serious consideration or reject it outright; then launch signature gathering, citing the council's resistance to reform.

“I don't mean to oversimplify the task: it involves long, hard work, but for some sense of what voters will do when given a chance to play a role in controlling their own political institutions, look at the Sunshine Ordinance just placed on the November ballot in the tiny (18,000) City of Dixon, based on petitions circulated by an ardent civic watchdog and a relative handful of her friends.  You won't find a tougher upgrading of the Brown Act, Public Records Act and similar rules anywhere.  Another sunshine measure, on the Berkeley ballot, is not as demanding but does emphasize giving the public greater advance notice of items on city bodies' agendas.”

If Neighborhood Councils have any hope of keeping up with City Hall, they need a Sunshine Ordinance that keeps City Hall open and transparent without strangling the public in obstacles that can’t be overcome.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Are Neighborhood Councils Ready for Facebook?

CityWatch, June 19, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 49

RETHINKING LA - The great thing about participating in a Neighborhood Council is the fact that it provides a crash course in the Brown Act and in the Public Records Act. Unfortunately it's typically a literal crash, one that brings meetings to a screeching halt as members share anecdotal experiences, second hand information, and collective fears of legal action. Neighborhood Councils are currently debating the use of Facebook in the public arena, urged on by those who embrace the social media revolution and held back by those who fear Brown Act violations and Public Record Liabilities.

The irony of this Facebook debate is that it takes place in a city that is led by Social Media fans, including Mayor @Trutanich, City Attorney @Trutanich and LA's Facebook pioneer, former City Council President @Garcetti who was one of the first to max out his Facebook page with friends.

LA's City Leadership is so fond of social media that LA's Ethics Commission recently addressed the antiquated application of analog legal restrictions in a digital world. Politicians with active Facebook and Twitter accounts may soon be required to set up separate accounts for their political candidacy campaigns, a requirement that acknowledges the legitimacy of social media activity within City Hall and the need to address appropriate use.

Individuals with social media accounts have an obligation to keep their political work separate from their government work, a standard that applies to all they do, not just social media.

Groups with social media accounts, such as Neighborhood Councils, have an obligation to conduct themselves in accordance with Open Meeting Laws, a standard that applies to all public arenas and digital communications, not just social media.

The idea of a Neighborhood Council using Facebook to tell their story, engage their community, and invite stakeholders to events should result in a hearty round of yawns, after all, Facebook accounts are so common, they're almost passé.

But in some cases, simply suggesting that a Neighborhood Council operate a Facebook account as part of their outreach strategy results in shrill cries of "What about the Brown Act?"

Terry Francke, the Executive Director of CalAware and the lawyer who succeeded in his Brown Act case against the LA County Supervisors, reports that there is nothing unique about social media when it comes to the Brown Act.

Neighborhood Councils have much to contend with and threats of Brown Act and Public Records Act abuse simply has a chilling effect on the spirit of volunteerism.

LA's Mayor, City Attorney, and former City Council President have all utilized social media in their governmental work and have all demonstrated an ability to differentiate between appropriate governmental use and distinctly separate personal or political use.

Neighborhood Councils are definitely ready to follow City Hall down the same digital road.

LA's Ethics Commission stands prepared to grapple with need to address digital technologies and analog laws, removing the mystery from the discussion.

Again, Neighborhood Councils are definitely ready to follow City Ethics down that digital legal road.

The tools for communication will continue to evolve and if Neighborhood Councils are firmly grounded on their commitment to open and transparent governance, then they are ready for Facebook.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Can LA’s Neighborhood Councils Keep Up?

CityWatch, June 15, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 48

RETHINKING LA - Neighborhood Councils face an uphill battle as they attempt to fulfill their City Charter mandate to engage the public and advise City Hall, after all, they typically meet once a month while the City Council meets three times a week, making it tough to keep track of the issues and resulting legislation. Even the members of City Council, complete with dedicated staff and departmental liaisons, find it tough to keep up with the logjam of legislation, resulting in cries of “What are we voting on?” in a process that allows inaction to count as an affirmative vote.

Through it all, Neighborhood Councils are expected to monitor the delivery of city services and keep the public engaged in the process, a Sisyphean responsibility that challenges the capacity of the volunteer-driven Neighborhood Council system.

This prompts the question: “Can Neighborhood Councils keep up with the City of LA?”

If the City is serious about encouraging feedback from Neighborhood Councils, here are three things they can do to facilitate participation.

1. Plan ahead. Motions that have been simmering for years suddenly spring on to an agenda, leaving Neighborhood Councils 72 hours to wade through 15 pages of agenda to find the item and then mobilize and communicate with City Hall.

Councils can file Community Impact Statements on the general topic (“We like sidewalks!”) well in advance of the agendized legislation but the final action will typically have specificity (“Homeowners will pay for repairs by deferring costs until the property is sold.”) that defies official Neighborhood Council Board action. Volunteers that meet every month can’t respond to 72 hour notice with a Community Impact Statement that addresses the most recent iteration of long-simmering legislation.

Neighborhood Councils must get better notice when agenda items such as the Hollywood Community Plan are going to appear on the City Council agenda, especially if they have been in the process for years, so that community members can be involved in the journey all the way to the finish line.

2. Stick to the schedule. City Council agenda items are typically a moving target on agendas that are jammed with the full range of legislation, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. On some days, arriving a few minutes late means a wasted trip downtown. On others days, arriving on time means sitting for hours, never sure when a specific item will come up for comment and action.

The business of the people is important enough to schedule so that the public can participate without having to give up a day’s work for a minute’s commentary. The public’s ability to participate depends on the City Council treating the public with respect and the public’s time is a valuable asset that should not be squandered through sloppy management or underhanded machination.

3. Set a good example. Neighborhood Council leaders learn from the City Council, the Committees and the Commission. When members of the public are interrupted during public comment, it sets a bad example. When the public is required to sign in, a violation of the Brown Act, it sets a bad example. When the public is treated to agendas that are impossible to read, it sets a bad example.

If the City Council is serious about supporting Neighborhood Councils and engaging the public in the process, they will set an example by communicating well in advance, welcoming people to council chambers, offering informative agendas, and by listening during public comment, not interrupting or, even worse, simply ignoring.

As for the question, “Can Neighborhood Councils keep up?” the answer is yes, if the City Council is willing to partner with Neighborhood Councils in communication, organization, and respect.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Los Angeles: Are Neighborhood Council Elections Worth the Price?

CityWatch, June 12, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 47

RETHINKING LA - It’s Neighborhood Council election season, a period of time that is marked by the perennial  debate within City Hall over the high cost of representative government and the challenge “Do Neighborhood Council elections matter?” Elections are a Neighborhood Council’s most significant outreach opportunity, one that allows them to tell their story to their stakeholders, their potential candidates, the city as a whole, their neighborhood partners, and to City Hall. Most of all, it offers an opportunity to evaluate the past and to set a vision for the future.

LA’s City Charter calls on Neighborhood Councils to “Promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs,” a mandate that is best fulfilled with robust elections.

Simply positioning Neighborhood Council elections as an outreach event results in a firm “Yes, Neighborhood Council Elections matter!”

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(NOTE: The Education and Neighborhoods Committee will hear the CLA and CAO report on Tuesday on “the appropriate dollar amount for each Neighborhood Council to contribute toward conducting the 2012” NC elections. These funds would come out of individual Neighborhood Council budgets for 2012-13. Make sure your Neighborhood Council voice is heard on this issue. Info: Education and Neighborhoods Committee meeting, Tuesday, June 12, 2 pm. City Hall Room 1050)

●●●●●●●●

Elections also offer Neighborhood Councils an opportunity to “check their attitude,” a phrase used by airline pilots during landing who refer to their relationship to the ground as “attitude.” Pilots who want to avoid crashes will repeatedly “check their attitude.”

Neighborhood Councils who embrace robust and contested elections have an opportunity to revisit their story, their mission, and their relationship with the community.

Again, if Neighborhood Council Elections were evaluated simply on their ability to “check a council’s attitude,” the result would be “Yes, Neighborhood Council elections matter!”

Elections are a Neighborhood Council’s opportunity to connect with City Hall by engaging the community in a dialogue on the issues that matter to the people, whether they are voters or candidates.

City Hall’s commitment to responding to local needs is contingent on participation from the community. Candidates who can clearly address the issues that motivate them to run will give stakeholders a clear opportunity to communicate their priorities and their values.

This alone makes Neighborhood Council elections a worthwhile endeavor and the result is a clear “Yes, Neighborhood Council elections matter.”

Neighborhood Councils were created in response to local dissatisfaction with the delivery of city services and they came as part of a commitment to engage the people of LA with City Hall.

To that end, Neighborhood Council elections matter most to City Hall because, without them, City Hall’s commitment to involving the people in an open and participatory government is broken.

City Hall’s commitment to the people, as codified in the City Charter, is priceless. As a result, Neighborhood Council elections matter and they are worth the price.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Neighborhood Councils: Do They Matter?

CityWatch, June 8, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 46

RETHINKING LA - LA’s Neighborhood Councils are finally getting some respect, unfortunately it’s from admirers who live in cities such as London, Toronto, and Nagoya who look to LA and find inspiration.

As for hometown love, Neighborhood Councils find themselves struggling to get attention in a city that threatens their survival each budget cycle, challenges their purpose when convenient, and ignores them when they dare to advise City Hall.

As Neighborhood Councils kick off election season, the first challenge comes in the form of a yawn, first from City Hall and then from the community, followed by the tough question “Do neighborhood councils matter?”

The answer from fans in Toronto is “Yes!” and a picture of the front door of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is part of an exhibit called “The Fourth Wall” which is challenging the notion that government takes care of the people’s business while the people play the role of spectator.

In London, activists and politicians cry “Yes!” and are looking to LA’s Neighborhood Councils for inspiration as they embark on a mission “to rediscover London as a collection of villages" and to address the budgetary tug-of-war between City Hall and the 32 borough councils.

The Mayor of Nagoya yelled “Yes!” and left his career in national politics to move into the real source of power, the local level, embracing LA’s Neighborhood Council concept and making it his own, demonstrating that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

Meanwhile, Neighborhood Councils in the City of LA find themselves at a fork in the road. If they don’t act decisively, the answer to the question will be “No, Neighborhood Councils don’t matter.”

But if the people of LA step up, the answer will be a resounding “Yes, Neighborhood Councils matter!”

Neighborhood Councils are simply people. They are you. They matter if you matter and they matter if you believe in an engaged community, in transparent governance, in a direct route to City Hall, and in seizing the opportunity to hold city government accountable.

“Yes, Neighborhood Councils matter!” they matter because the people of LA matter and Neighborhood Councils are a tool for bringing individuals together so that they can address City Hall with a collective voice, one that comes with a City Charter mandate to hold City Hall accountable.

But the real answer to the question “Do Neighborhood Councils matter?” comes from you, the individual who must ask yourself the tougher question “Do you matter?” If the answer is “Yes!” then Neighborhood Councils matter because they are you and they are your best opportunity to ensure that City Hall listens to you, treats you with respect and delivers the City Services that you pay for.

Really, it’s all about you!

NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS NOTICE:

The Education and Neighborhoods Committee will be hearing two important issues this Tuesday pertaining to Neighborhood Councils- 1) A CLA recommendation on how much NCs should be docked toward the cost of NC elections; and, 2) A detailed DONE report on who’s in and who’s not on Neighborhood Council Elections.

Councils should be monitoring and participating in these decisions. E & N Committee Meeting … Tuesday, June 12 … 2 pm … City Hall (Room 1050). Agenda details here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Los Angeles: The People Must Come First

CityWatch, June 5, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 45

RETHINKING LA - Los Angeles will take its place as a Great City when it shifts from a complaint-driven system to a standards-driven structure, putting the people of LA first and positioning respect as the foundation for developing powerful relationships between the public and those in public service.

This simplistic statement amounts to a proverbial fork in the pothole-laden road for Los Angeles, one where the city can continue to instruct the public to call 311 to report potholes or one where the city develops a standard for its streets and then sets out to bring the streets up to standard.

In more general terms, it would free the public from being responsible for spending inordinate amounts of time requesting the most basic of city services and allow the public to actually partner with City Hall, working together to improve the quality of life in the community.

1) Open the front doors of City Hall to the public. Reward those who take the Metro to the Civic Center station and then walk to City Hall, put out the welcome mat, turn the courtyard into great public space, and send a message to the public that City Hall is their home. City Hall is a beautiful building but asking the public to use the back door is simply unacceptable.

For all of the money being spent on the 12-acre Grant Park that is being built to the west of City Hall, it still connects to doors that are closed to the public.

2) Position a concierge at each entrance and greet the public, offering real information and real answers. Tone down the oppressive security gauntlet, get rid of the stickers, lose the irrelevant sign-in sheet and dispense with all of the unnecessary labor. It's City Hall.

The most significant violence in recent history to occur on city property was committed by city employees so the inconsistent security standard simply positions the public as 2nd class while the staff are 1st class. Open the doors, treat the public with respect, put customer service first and hire those concierges!

3) Listen to the public, not simply as a demonstration of endurance, but as an opportunity to take notes, to engage, to incorporate public comment into the active-solution process. Public comment is not simply a Brown Act obligation, it is the essence of the relationship, it is the minimum standard and any real leader will transcend minimum and look for optimum.

Engage the public, ask for input, make feedback an integral element of moving forward. Anybody who takes a half day of their time to travel to City Hall should be thanked for caring enough to participate, rewarded for the investment of time and enlisted as a partner in making LA a Great City, not simply dismissed as 2 minutes of noise.

4) Instill an "Every door is the right door" policy so that the public never ever has to navigate the Department of "No" journey that fatigues the hardiest and consumes inordinate amounts of energy and time.

From the Mayor to the intern, treat every request as an opportunity to be of service. Find the answer, find the department, find the solution but never, ever send the public away with an admonition that they asked the wrong person or the wrong question or the wrong department. City Hall exists to remove obstacles.

I'm often convinced that there are those in power who think that it would be a lot easier to run the City of Los Angeles if it wasn't for all of the people.

This attitude seems to originate in City Hall and then waft through some of the departments and offices, resulting in staff who seem to think that transportation would be a lot easier to manage if it wasn't for all of the traffic, that social services would be easier to handle if it wasn't for all of the needy people, that emergencies would be easier to address if they would just take place between Monday and Friday.

It's simple to suggest that the City of Los Angeles could take a lesson from Disneyland or Nordstroms or Trader Joe's or Southwest Airlines or Rackspace, companies that put a focus on customer service in good times and then double down when things get rough. But the immediate response tends to be "That's different, we're in the public service sector!"

Fair enough but one of the most successful change agents has been busy at work in Los Angeles over the last couple of years and the City of LA let him get away.

The Metrolink’s CEO, John Fenton, just took a job in Florida after spending two years turning Metrolink around. He arrived in the wake of the deadly 2008 train crash that took the lives of 25 passengers. He transformed a demoralized organization into a tight team that focused on treating passengers like guests, not cargo.

Fenton took a train system that spans 500 miles and services 6 counties, hobbled with budget constraints and bad press, and the world took notice.

While others were courting John Fenton, the City of LA debated the hold music on 311 and the background music on Channel 35.

The City of Los Angeles exports talent, from our schools, from our companies, from our public works partners, and from our municipal ranks.


When John Fenton arrived in town he declared  "Everything we do, we do for people. If we forget the human element, we will fail!"

We let Fenton get away but his words belong in City Hall. City Hall exists to serve the people of LA and if Los Angeles is to become a City that Works, it will be because the people of Los Angeles come first.

High atop City Hall in the Tom Bradley room, the words of Thomas Jefferson are inscribed on the wall. "That government is the strongest of which every man feels a part.” I propose that the Mayor and the City Council have a basic mandate and that is to make sure that every man and woman feels a part of the City of Los Angeles.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

City Hall’s Welcome Mat Says It All

CityWatch, June 1, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 44

RETHINKING LA - To live in Hollywood is to assume the role of tour guide. On a daily basis I am reminded that I live in a great city, one that attracts tourists from around the world who come here to experience the stories that Los Angeles tells, some true and some fiction, but all of them compelling.

I frequently meet strangers who have that lost look on their face and it’s my habit to make eye contact and give them the nod, indicating that it’s okay to ask for directions. That brief moment of wayfinding costs me nothing and yet it has such an impact. All it takes is a moment to point them to the best place to photograph the Hollywood sign or visit the Griffith Observatory or find the Hollyhock House or travel on the Walk of Fame.

I rarely speak the correct language but it never matters, even when they’re on the wrong train, headed to North Hollywood in search of the Kodak, or on Santa Monica Boulevard looking for the sandy beaches. A bit of pantomime, directions to a map, a quick sketch on a scrap of paper, even a brochure from one of the many racks, and my work as an ambassador is complete.

Tourism is the number one jobs generator in Los Angeles so it makes sense to take care of our tourists and it certainly reminds me on a daily basis that I live in the center of the universe when it comes to culture, the arts, history, the entertainment industry, education, and all of the things that attract people from all over the world.

Local businesses capitalize on the opportunity by reaching out with information, some by passively hosting brochure racks and others who fill the sidewalks with flyer patrols who compete with hawkers and buskers.

Through it all, they communicate loudly and clearly, “Welcome to LA, we’ve been waiting for you!”

Walt Disney wrote the book on hospitality and central to his philosophy was the simple rule that your number one responsibility was to care for the guests, no matter what your position. The people who sweep the streets of Disneyland are typically the first person a lost child will encounter so their training starts with learning the names of the Seven Dwarfs, not with principles of sanitation.

This focus on “corporate culture” means that everybody in the Disney organization is trained to understand that their professional competence can be evaluated by their ability to communicate successfully with a lost child.

Imagine if that commitment to guest satisfaction were part of LA’s “civic culture” and an expression of City Hall’s core purpose and core values.

Visitors to City Hall, whether local or tourist, would be able to wander through City Hall and be greeted by friendly and helpful hosts who are ready to offer directions, tell a story, comfort a lost child, and steer the public through the City Hall experience.

Dave Meslin of Toronto has taken to acting like a tourist in City Hall, asking the first person at the first counter for directions to the brochure rack, to the information kiosk, the tour guide. He typically gets a blank stare but he is determined to remove barriers to civic engagement.

If City Hall is serious about conducting the business of the people in a transparent and inclusive manner, it will start by treating locals the way Walt Disney treats tourists, like honored guests.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

LA’s City Council Needs a Maître d’

CityWatch, May 29, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 43

RETHINKING LA -One of City Hall’s best defenses against public participation is its charming tradition of vagueness with regard to the business of the people.

With great regularity the City Council acts with firm authority and calls on city departments to conduct surveys, to issue reports, and to return with proposals and drafts suitable for further pontification and public dissemination. Eventually the activity begins to wane and the original action dies the most humiliating death, it gets smothered by dust and simply fades into irrelevance.

As for the members of the public who were engaged in the initial action, their patience has been tested, their time has been wasted, and their confidence in the efficacy of civic engagement has been depleted.

When controversial issues continue to draw the attention of the public, much to the dismay of the Council Members who would like to see actions take place in empty chambers, free of the noise that comes with enthusiastic public participation, the best way to shake the crowd is to hold it in limbo until it finds its way on a busy agenda and slips through the system silently.

It requires dedicated and diligent trackers to catch these items, some of which languish for months before they race for the finish line on agendas that are typically surrounded by distractions.

When the trackers catch these stealth City Council actions and alert the community, turning out the crowd that insists on speaking in public and drawing attention to the controversial issue, the next sleight of hand takes place as the agenda is shuffled and the meeting is drawn out to such lengths that time runs short, public comment is reduced to the minimum, and the item in question is held until anything and everything else is resolved. Hours later, even the hardiest of community members has had time to rethink their commitment and their hope for meaningful civic engagement.

Observers of LA’s City Council agenda machinations fall into two schools, those who believe in conspiracy and those who attribute it all to incompetence.

Conspiracy buffs point to the scheduled absences of Councilmembers and note the issues that come up while they are gone, a pattern that allows them to maintain the neutral high road as controversial actions slide through the system.

The current Hollywood Community Plan is an example of a hot-topic item that is floating, prompting community members to track Hollywood Councilmember Eric Garcetti’s scheduled absences in the hopes of determining when the controversial issue will surface in City Council.

Those who dismiss the foibles of City Council as simple incompetence need only point to the familiar refrain “What are we voting on?” that is heard with alarming regularity from a body that gets better press for debating the background music on the City’s Channel 35 than for actually running the city and delivering the services that the people depend on.

Through it all, it’s fair to ask “What can we do?”

The answer is quite simple, run City Council like a decent restaurant. Hire a host, take reservations, announce specials in advance, greet the public, offer them a menu, stick to a schedule, deliver what is promised, check back to ensure satisfaction, and get paid based on prompt and satisfactory service.

As simplistic as this sounds, having a host run the agenda would allow people to check in, determine when their item would be scheduled for hearing, and return when appropriate.

Currently, the public sits for hours, afraid to leave for fear their item will be taken out of order.

From London to Toronto, community activists are calling on their city leadership to introduce respect and empathy into the civic engagement process by embracing scheduling as a foundation for robust meetings and hearings.

As for LA, there’s nothing wrong with City Hall that can’t be fixed by a decent maitre d' and a commitment to serve the people on time and efficiently.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

City Hall: Everybody's Talking, Nobody's Listening

CityWatch, May 25, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 42

RETHINKING LA - Brown Act be damned, it takes a skilled tracker to navigate the City of LA's Byzantine process for communicating announcements, policies, meetings, hearings, agendas and actions.

Veterans of the bureaucratic jungle typically develop tracker instincts that allow them to monitor the subtle signs of City Hall activity and stay informed of impending actions on behalf of the people.
It shouldn't be that way. It shouldn't require such diligence to stay informed, to get involved, and to monitor City Hall as it engages in the business of the people.

Dave Meslin, a Toronto based artist and activist, contends that typical municipal communications come wrapped in a web of barriers that alienate everyday people. Meslin contends that public participation would increase if City Hall employed the same successful standards for communication that can be found in the private sector. After all, that's where businesses die if they keep old customers informed while engaging new customers.

"Public notices should be completely redesigned as marketing materials," says Meslin, "instead of the traditional documents that are characterized by small type, lack of color, lousy graphics (or none at all) and oodles of bureaucratic gobbledygook."

It may seem like a tall order to expect the folks within City Hall to turn into marketing experts overnight but the evidence demonstrates they already have significant skills.

The hallway to the DWP's cafeteria is crowded with colorful posters that are tastefully displayed on easels, all announcing retirement parties and featuring photos and hard to resist invitations to party one more time with a beloved co-worker.

When it matters, people know how to throw a party and to invite the guests with lots of time to prepare. If only those skills were put to work on the people's business.

City Hall has a big poster announcing the City Clerk's road trip to Harrah's Casino. It's colorful, enticing, and has a big headline announcing the "End-of-Year Celebration."

Perhaps if the people's business was treated as a celebration rather than an obligation, we'd see colorful notices that entice instead of confuse.

The bulletin boards at City Hall are full of well designed flyers that clearly communicate car pools in need of passengers, social events in need of participants, retirement parties in search of celebrants, and exercise clubs in pursuit of moral support.

Again, they're fun, well designed, and they successfully compete for attention in crowded hallways on cluttered bulletin boards.

The skills exist in City Hall, but the habit of erring in favor of the legal minimum when it comes to announcement, agendas, actions, and policies has resulted in what Meslin refers to as an insurmountable wall of obfuscation.

When it matters, the people within City Hall have the skills necessary to communicate as if they really wanted you to know what was going on and why you should be there if the City Council meetings were given the same enthusiastic billing.

It's up to the people of LA to demand that City Hall communicate with the public with the same degree of respect that the carpoolers, the stair masters, and the bingo junket riders get.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

LA’s City Hall: Too Many Departments, Not Enough Light Bulbs

CityWatch, May 22, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 41

RETHINKING LA - Austin Beutner, while still stumping the Mayoral campaign trail, told a story of how many City of LA Departments it took to change a light bulb. In this case a light bulb on a light pole.

Apparently it takes the Department of Water and Power because they control the electricity to the bulb. It also takes the Bureau of Street Services because they are responsible for the actual street and sidewalk that hosts the light pole. Add to the mix the Department of Transportation because they are responsible for controlling traffic as the heavy equipment blocks the street. Rounding out the effort is the Bureau of Street Lighting, the folks who actually install the light bulb.

If the light bulb is being replaced as the result of a motor vehicle collision, a fairly common occurrence in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department may end up investigating a traffic collision that will then require the Bureau of Sanitation to send a team to clean up the debris in the street.

Beutner made much of this multi-departmental dance that demonstrates LA’s commitment to maintaining siloed departments that have their own language, their own communication style, their own rules, and their own authority. Heck, some of them have their own police force.

When Beutner told his story, it drew chuckles. After all, it’s a light bulb joke!

But when it happens to people who live in Los Angeles and who expect the City of LA to efficiently deliver City Services to the people of LA, it is no longer a joke. It is a crisis.

Recently, a resident of an R-1 home engaged in a bit of Spring Cleaning and found himself with a big load of trash that would not fit in the single black trash bin given to him by the Bureau of Sanitation and picked up on a weekly basis. So, he did what works.

The resident made several trips across the street to deposit the loose trash on the sidewalk outside the local church. Why? Because if he called Sanitation, they would charge him for an extra bin as a long term solution or for the additional trash if he wanted a one-time extra pickup.

Instead, the resident engaged in a misdemeanor act of “illegal dumping” that carries with it a first-time penalty of $500. This misdemeanor doesn’t have to be witnessed by a law enforcement officer, and in this case, it didn’t take much to determine guilt. Items with the resident’s name and address were found in the trash as well as his ID card and then he confessed, twice, to the illegal dumping.

Here is where the City of LA’s multi-departmental approach to changing light bulbs, or in this case, taking out the trash, gets convoluted and ultimately fails the people of Los Angeles.

The pastor of the church sees the trash and calls 311. He also sends an email that alerts the City Council office to the ongoing problem on this street and activates neighbors who call the Senior Lead Officer of the LAPD.

311 is supposed to be the “one phone call is all it takes” solution to the byzantine morass that is the City of LA but the reduced hours of operation, the long hold time when a call is placed, and the slim chances that the call will activate the correct department are all evidence that 311 is not a solution.

The 311 operator took the call and sent the Bureau of Sanitation to clean up the illegal dumping mess. A neighbor had already pulled the identifying elements from the trash heap and set them aside for the investigators.

After the Bureau of Sanitation cleaned the site, the Bureau of Street Services arrived to conduct an investigation. They have enforcement authority, including citation and arrest, but if they get to the scene after it has been cleaned, it’s tough to investigate or prosecute.

In this case, there was still evidence because the Bureau of Sanitation only took the larger debris, leaving behind the illegal dumper’s identification card from his Law School. (so much for the “I had no idea!” defense)

The plot thickens though because the LAPD’s Senior Lead Officer had already knocked on the illegal dumpers door and accepted the “Sacre Bleu!” defense, allowing the resident to call 311 and demonstrating a disconnect from municipal code and Sanitation charges.

While it is hardly incumbent on a SLO to know the minutiae of LA’s sanitation billing, it is their responsibility to know the laws that impact the quality of life issues that a SLO deals with. In this case, illegal dumping on street where it is a common occurrence would suggest that a SLO with a decade plus of experience might know the difference between an apartment building and a house or bulky items and loose trash.

Further adding to the confusion at the trash heap is the charming habit of the local Councilman to send a truck he has commandeered from the Department of Public Works around the neighborhood, picking up trash and focusing on the symptom of illegal dumping rather than the solution.

Instead of actually running the city and addressing the systemic issues that result in massive budgets that fail to deliver city services, his solution is to send a Council Deputy in sandals out in a City vehicle with a driver to pick up evidence of illegal dumping, further thwarting an effective investigation.

Missing from this heap o’ departments at the trash pile is the City Attorney’s office which has a Neighborhood Prosecutor standing by to address quality of life issues such as the long-term residents who know how to game the system.

Of course, there is not much the Neighborhood Prosecutor can do if the Senior Lead Officer is busy yelling at residents “I don’t know what else I can do!” and “I don’t know why this is such a big deal!”

Added to the failure is the ease with which the Bureau of Street Services Investigator accepted the resident’s story without simply calling 311 to verify the accuracy of their defense. That would have required the investigator to breach the silo walls, talking to a 311 operator and Bureau of Sanitation staff.

The bottom line is this, the City of LA is incapable of addressing an illegal dumping incident, one that is actually part of a pattern of abuse on this same street.

Of the many departments involved here, it is apparent that LA’s City Hall has become the Tower of Babel.

The Bureau of Sanitation is a mysterious entity that requires an insider’s password in order get to those responsible for operations.

The Bureau of Street Services only takes voice messages that are then written down by the receptionist, explaining where those old “Missed Call” message pads were sent.

The City Council office sent instructions that contradict the 311 advice of old and ensure job security for the “Trash Truck” Deputy, calling on residents “in the know” to simply go directly to the Council Office to get trash picked up.

Through it all, the SLO instructs the local to organize cleanups because “As you know it is up to your neighbors and the entire neighborhood to get involved and keep your area clean.”

Meanwhile, the beleaguered 311 operators take calls from harried Angelenos who spend too much time on hold and not enough time seeing results. If 311 is only open when people are busy getting to work, working and getting home from work, it’s safe to say that the system is not meeting people where they need to be met.

If there is a budget crisis in Los Angeles, it is because too many departments are protecting their siloed turf and antiquated communications systems while the residents of LA stand by and wonder why it takes so many departments to change so few light bulbs.