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600 characters in search of a narrative

Congress of Neighborhood Councils comes to City Hall

Opinion: Saturday's Congress of Neighborhood Councils, largely a training and implementation program, emphasized self-perpetuating civic outreach rather than real City politics. It drew 600 souls, but it largely ignored looming issues. A few fresh faces offer encouraging signs.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa commenced the proceedings in a beige tee-shirt and a morning-after paunch and called the City's Neighborhood Council system "the most robust NC system in the country." George Wolfberg of Santa Monica Canyon described it as "600 plus peeps giving up their day for a better City." USC journalism student Melissa Leu tweeted "Roll call begins at opening sessions. Silence from some neighborhood councils." Cycle activist Alex Thompson said of Miguel Santana's budget leadership that "with all due respect the Mayor's agenda to privatize services is as obvious as a trainwreck."

So all told, what did today's Congress of Neighborhood Councils in City Hall accomplish?

Mostly, the day was devoted to training and implementation, anchoring the way the City works for the attendees. There were workshops on emergency preparedness, outreach, &c. One was even on "Dealing with Difficult People."

But early in the day, one particular PowerPoint slide swayed like the sword of Damocles over the heads of the attendees. This one:
  • The Ralph M. Brown Act
  • The Public Records Act
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The Plan for a Citywide System of Neighborhood Councils
  • Bylaws
  • State and City Conflict of Interest Laws
All these laws, and little access to lawyers--and it is destined to be so ever. Thus the inherent Achilles' heel of the neighborhood council movement: it's easy to gum it up with grievances, and should the administrators at the City become too capricious in dismissing grievances, NCs themselves can become vulnerable to court action should the right interest be interested enough to take them down the path.

Encouraged by their own numbers, the Congress overlooked three growing counter-notions: that they are increasingly being gamed by Councilmembers and local chambers of commerce, that they are not truly representative of neighborhood residents, and that community groups are increasingly finding that they can work more effectively outside the system rather than inside of it.

There were some murmurs towards the end of the day about the City being all hat and no cattle when it came to backing neighborhood councils. But other than those murmurs, the Congress was one not of politics, but of political stasis.

One NC board member commented to me today:

I think these NC congresses are great ideas on paper, but generally much is discussed, yet little follow up with any effectiveness, (see also "sound and fury"). The City Clerk just recently let NCs know they have no budget to conduct NC elections next year and are looking for "alternatives."

Even though a 2006 commission's primary recommendation was that a third party was absolutely essential to conducting NC elections.

Unfortunately, I believe the NC system itself is circling the drain.

But among the more promising developments were the presence of several people under retirement age, most notably from Teach For America, a nationwide group of recent college grads who pledge to teach two years in urban environments. Such organizations have little agenda other than promoting their own organizations, but that's a welcome development--as is any development in which organizations compete with chambers of commerce, Councilmembers and Council office staffers for more community attention.