Friday, June 11, 2010

CityWatchLA - NC Elections: Opportunity that Got Away!

CityWatch, June 11, 2010
Vo 8 Issue 46

One of the most significant events in the life of a neighborhood council (along with all of the others) is the election of the Board of Directors, an occasion that is much more than the simple selection of the chosen few. The election is also the most significant outreach event in the NC cycle, offering an opportunity to not only engage qualified candidates but to engage the community in the work of the council. The election also offers the community the opportunity to participate in establishing a vision for the council, during the campaign journey and at the election itself.

One might even suggest that the simple act of voting for a candidate in a hotly contested election is the simple act that signifies a contract between the people of the community and the neighborhood council. Regardless of how one approaches NC elections, one thing is sure, they signify the beginning, not the end, of a long and significant journey, and yet...

Neighborhood Council elections have become a spectator sport, one that takes place in an abstract fashion with little ownership from the many groups who purportedly have a vested interest in the outcome.

Consider the role of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment in the election process and their laissez faire attitude to the process. Granted, they are no longer responsible for conducting the actual elections but one would think that they would have a vested interest in promoting the NC mandate, the NC system, the NC engagement. If nothing else, one would think that DONE would have used the NC election process to promote themselves, demonstrating their ability to communicate, to connect, to engage the community and to support the NC system. Such is not the case. DONE is, at best, a passive spectator to the NC election process, at worst, they are completely oblivious.

Consider the neighborhood councils, caught in the middle of a long drawn out battle over roll-over funds and funding debates and also caught in the middle of a long drawn out battle over election authority and responsibility. Some councils had a strong track record of outreach and they faired well. Some councils had a history of relying on DONE and they were left hanging. Some councils failed to grasp the importance of the election process and simply allowed it to be something that was done to them, not for them and certainly not with them. The final results remain to be seen but as the election process limps forward, it seems to be leaving many councils floundering in its wake.

Consider the role of the City Clerk, currently responsible for conducting NC elections but not responsible for any outreach or communication other than that specific to the machinations of the actual election process. As the City Clerk nears completion of the citywide neighborhood council board election process, they have received cheers from some and jeers from others, along with a great deal of ambivalence, resulting in City Council assurances that the entire process will be reviewed for efficacy and efficiency. Along the way, the City Clerk claimed absolute authority over elements ranging from bylaw revisions to election procedures to the grievance process. With this authority comes only limited responsibility and it ends at the moment of certification.

The failure of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, the Neighborhood Councils and the City Clerk to come together with a citywide plan for capitalizing on the election process as the single greatest opportunity to connect with the community and to promote the neighborhood council system is a huge missed opportunity.

This failure to come together has also left a gap in accountability that leaves some neighborhood councils in limbo, attempting to play by rules but unable to locate any authority.

At issue is the process for transitioning neighborhood council authority from the sitting board to the newly elected board. For many, the composition is similar so the transition is of minimal impact and significance. In other cases, the old board is being replaced by a new board. That has proven to be a problem for some councils.

First, what agency or department has authority over the seating of the new board?

The City Clerk is responsible for certifying the elections and then new board members show up at the next regularly scheduled board meeting, only to find that the City Clerk is gone, Neighborhood Empowerment no longer attends NC meetings, and there is some confusion over what authority facilitates the process.

One NC floundered as they waited on the the results of an election grievance and the certification of the election, only to find themselves in limbo as the time came for the new board to be seated. Two months had gone by, the old board had moved on, the new board politely waited for a determination on who seats the new board?

Second, under what authority does the new board take its seats and the resulting authority over council business?

According to the City Clerk generated Election Procedures, once the election results are certified, the old board convenes the next regularly scheduled board meeting and is responsible for seating the new board. Typically, this is painless but in some cases it has been a problem.

One NC had no quorum of the old board but simply took a quorum of the new board as legitimate authority to seat the new board and to proceed with NC business. What message does this send to new board members is the first thing they learn is that the quickest way to conduct NC business is to look for “workarounds” in order to navigate LA’s bureaucracy.

Third, what agency or authority is responsible for any appeals or claims of inappropriate board activity?

One NC had its elections certified but the outgoing Board President chose to fill the unfilled seats by appointment before passing the gavel. The newly elected board showed up at the regularly scheduled meeting but they weren’t seated and the gavel wasn’t passed. Another lost opportunity and another bad lesson for the new board members.

Through it all, some City Councilmembers have partnered with their neighborhood councils, facilitating neighborhood council board transitions by honoring the outgoing boardmembers and recognizing them for their contributions, by recognizing the election results and honoring the stakeholders for their participation, and by swearing in the new board and offering their partnership in the impending journey. It's good to have friends, especially in high places! But this was the exception, not the norm.

Ultimately, the limbo period is a huge problem for neighborhood councils because of the impending deadline for NC budgets for the upcoming 2010/2011 year. How can an NC effectively engage the community and plan for the upcoming year if they can’t find the gavel and seat the incoming board?

This failure to anticipate the conflict between the individual NC bylaws and the City Clerk election procedures was discussed at the beginning of the transition process and dismissed as a simple procedural necessity. For DONE? For the City Clerk? Certainly not for the neighborhood councils!

This failure to anticipate the limbo zone between the City Clerk and the DONE is indicative of the lack of foresight that NC’s have experienced with literally every decision that has come from City Hall. From funding issues to staffing issues to the elections to the CDD/DONE consolidation, it is apparent unintended consequences are the greatest threat to LA’s neighborhood councils.

This failure to anticipate the need to address board transitions has prompted calls for help, so many that the DONE employee on the “Help Line” acknowledged that “There have been a lot of calls on this issue.” This begs the question, “What good is the ‘Help Line’ if a large number of questions don’t motivate DONE to address the need for information?

The lesson to be learned from the current neighborhood council experience is that neighborhood councils are on their own, that their effectiveness is dependent on their initiative and on their resourcefulness, and that the future of the neighborhood council system requires immediate action from the community, not from City Hall.

(Stephen Box writes Box Soap for CityWatch. He can be reached at

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