Carol Baker Tharp is smart and well qualified but even her skills will be tested as she tries to bring order to Los Angeles’ neighborhood councils, the Wild West of city government.
I talked to Tharp Tuesday just after the City Council approved her appointment by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees the councils.
The councils were created more than a decade ago when the city was torn by the Valley secession movement. But city hall refused to give up power to the neighborhoods. Indeed, the councils simply advise the mayor and council members, who usually pay no attention.
Without power, considered pests by city hall, the neighborhood councils have taken to fevered but fruitless arguments over procedure. Some of them are famous for the viciousness of their battles over what constitutes a quorum. If you like a really mean debate over the adoption of the minutes, go to a neighborhood council meeting.
Tharp was deputy director of USC’s Civil Engagement Initiative, which issued a report on the neighborhood councils and criticized the stupid in- fighting. The SC scholars also noted that the most people active on the councils are older, white homeowners, a group not reflective of the city’s population.
Tharp has been involved in neighborhood councils since they sprung up in the mid ‘70s as a way to spread the power in city governments. She was in charge of community relations for the city manager of Eugene, Ore., one of the first cities to create neighborhood councils. She took charge of most of the new councils.
But that was a long time ago, and Los Angeles is no Eugene, a small university town where the population is almost 90% white and 37% of the people have a bachelor’s or graduate degree and almost 35% of the rest have attended college. Eugene has a long tradition of civic activism.
“Los Angeles has a real tough job,” she said. “It’s a bigger challenge here than in other places.”
Her first task will be to pacify the neighborhood councils, bringing civility to a system where each council generally makes its own rules. “My inclination is to allow as much autonomy as possible,” Tharp said. But she said that there should be citywide standards for council elections and by laws. “I tend to be someone who understands the need for rules,” she said. “This is public money. (The councils receive small amounts of money from city hall for local projects). The neighborhood councils are part of city government.”
Tharp will have to broaden the neighborhood membership in a city where about 40% of the people have lived here for less than five years and where only a third of the residents are homeowners, who have more of a stake in the neighborhood than renters.
Most of all, she’ll have to figure out a way to give the councils more of a say in neighborhood development and traffic projects, now totally run from city hall. Don’t expect city hall to give up any of that power easily