Friday, December 18, 2009

CityWatchLA - Neighborhood Councils’ Future: Do-It-Yourself and Vote-by-Mail Elections

CityWatch, Dec 18, 2009
Vol 7 Issue 103

Neighborhood councils may soon have the opportunity to opt in for Vote-by-Mail (VBM) services for the upcoming City Clerk-run board elections, but, in a sign of the times to come, NC's will have to find an outside vendor and then will have to pay for the services out of their own budgets.

The City Clerk's Executive Officer, Holly Wolcott, met with a small group of NC reps in a hastily convened meeting and agreed to consider the proposal which is contingent on the City Attorney's favorable opinion, City Clerk's approval, and the ability of the NC's to find an appropriate vendor, all as the first round of elections looms on the horizon. Neighborhood councils have expressed concerns with several elements of the City Clerk's election procedures including the lack of outreach, the single polling location policy, the restriction on VBM voting, the prohibition on volunteers working their own NC election and the delay in the tallying of the ballots.

The City Clerk responded to the most recent round of criticism with a position that is becoming the battle cry of LA's beleaguered city bureaucrats; "We're in the middle of a severe budget crisis and we're losing a significant amount of our staff."

The City Clerk's most recent concession came at the end of a meeting that saw Paul Neuman of Silver Lake and David Riva of PICO taking the City Clerk to task for the bare-bones election procedures that they claim will leave the NC's scratching for participants and hobbled in outreach.

The City Clerk, represented by Wolcott and Isaias Cantu, held firm on their commitment to election procedures that place a higher premium on standardization and uniformity of process, repeating that they can't do things unless they are offered citywide and that "there will be no cafeteria style services for this round of neighborhood council elections."

Russell Brown of Downtown LA NC brought the debate over VBM options to an end by pointing out that the City Clerk and the NC's share a commitment to a robust community participation in the upcoming elections and it is imperative to find a way to support NC's who depend on VBM voting to engage their stakeholders. To that end, he simply proposed that an outside vendor provide VBM services, that the NC's be allowed to contract with the provider, add VBM to their election and then pay for it themselves.

No burden on the City Clerk, no expense to the City Clerk. No fuss, no muss. The NC's find the vendor, creating a VBM option that the individual NC's would pay for themselves.

This was hard to resist and while no progress was made on the other issues, the VBM option may turn out to be a reality for the upcoming elections.

This Do It Yourself solution to one of the sticky concerns with the City Clerk-run elections brought up an interesting question; "What if the NC's simply opted out of the City Clerk elections entirely and hired an outside vendor to conduct their elections according to their own unique standards, traditions and procedures?"

Organizations from AAA to SAG to the Sierra Club conduct board elections all the time with no controversy and the professionals who conduct those elections can surely do the same for the individual NC's who are already responsible for their own outreach and candidate round-up. Why not?

Taking this scenario further, consider a stakeholder data management system that allowed NC's to uniformly "register" stakeholders throughout the year and to use this process to connect as well as to prepare for the elections.

NC's vary greatly in their ability to collect and manage data and it is typically tied to a specific person and/or a specific hard drive, managed in a wide variety of formats and not used to support NC elections. (There might be robust exceptions and, if so, they could serve as a model for data management and stakeholder engagement.)

Given the city's new relationship with Google, imagine a cloud computing data management solution that allowed stakeholders to register, participate, communicate, interact with their NC using technology that is worthy of a Great City!

Another interesting outcome of the meeting the City Clerk was the question; "What does the City Charter say about all of this?" It turns out that the City Charter, which trumps city ordinances in authority, directs the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment to "assist neighborhood councils with the election or selection of their officers." Section 901(d)

If the Neighborhood Councils need or want help with the upcoming Board elections, they should speak up and be specific.

If DONE responds with the popular refrain "We don't have the time or the staff." one might argue that DONE's base responsibilities are those that are specified in the City Charter before those that are directed by City Council ordinance.

It is incumbent on DONE to prioritize their efforts and to budget their resources according to those priorities. When in doubt, start with the Charter.

Ultimately, the upcoming NC elections look to be a taste of the future in Los Angeles. City staff will use smaller budgets and thinner staffing to focus on their core responsibilities and the DIY movement will become the norm for the people of LA as they seek to improve the quality of life in their communities.

To that end, set aside the afternoon of January 9th in Hollywood for the first "DIY LA" Grassroots 101 Workshop.

(Stephen Box is a Los Angeles community activist and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at )

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