Bill Boyarsky
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September 25, 2007

Save the neighborhood councils from city hall

It's odd that in this day of easy Internet communication and web sites that the Los Angeles neighborhood councils have so much trouble reaching out to residents and to the city government.

That was one of the most interesting findings of the Neighborhood Council Study Commission report on ways of pumping life into bodies that are supposed to give L.A.'s many and diverse neighborhoods a voice in City Hall.

City Hall considers the councils more of an annoyance than a voice. Government tries to shackle them in the same sort of mindless bureaucracy that has made city government a dark hole for anyone who wants to influence policy or just find out what's going on.

The councils were created during the Valley secession fight. The theory was that people would meet in the neighborhoods, discuss local problems and then influence the solution. The decision to make them advisory rendered the councils toothless when it came to actually writing new laws or voting on zoning decisions. But the councils remained a potential source of citizen influence.

City hall quickly took care of that. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment was supposed to provide support and encouragement to the volunteers on the councils. Instead, the commission said, the department staff spends its time on reviewing neighborhood council bylaws, untangling council election disputes and going over council finances in a bean counter fashion.

That's City Hall. Immerse yourself in bureaucratic details. You can't get in trouble by being a bean counter.

The council recommended that the department employees take on the tough job of helping the councils organize neighborhoods and build up their membership. And, the report said the council and the department should use the Internet to organize, just as every sharp political group in America is now doing. "While a significant percentage of neighborhood councils have their own websites…many do not and those that are in existence are often not maintained with regularity, " the study commission said. Its report said the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment should step in with its web capability and help out the council volunteers.

Organizing and coming up with creative web interactive programs is much more difficult than going over financial reports and nitpicking for possible rule violations. I don't know if the city hall people are up to it.

There are many Los Angeles community organizers who are very successful. Recently I have watched ACORN and the Coalition for Economic Survival as they fought for the rights of renters. ACORN organizers go door to door in poor neighborhoods, persuading people to attend meetings, rally at city hall and generally raise hell. They are on the streets from late in the afternoon until early evening,

That's what the staff of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment should do. The commission report said the department should learn how to do this challenging work.

But even if the department wants to do it, I bet this kind of grassroots activity is not what the mayor and the city council have in mind for the neighborhood councils.

September 12, 2007

A memorable defeat

It was the second Tuesday of September, my first time back to the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission after my July disaster.

That was the day we voted for a new president to replace Gil Garcetti, whose term as a commissioner had expired. With four years on the commission under my belt, a couple of them as vice president, it seemed logical for me to run. On the other hand it, I realized that my blogging for LA Observed might have given my colleagues the feeling I was a loose cannon. After mulling it over I decided not to run. Then on the morning of the meeting, I decided to go for it even though I knew I didn't have much of a chance.

I nominated myself, not being sure whether any of the other commissioners would nominate me. While accepting the probability of defeat, I had no idea it would be this bad. I didn't even get a second. Sean Treglia quickly got four votes out five votes. Facing defeat, I moved that we make Sean's election unanimous. I wasn't even re-elected vice president.

Like all losing candidates, I tried to analyze my defeat. I didn't have a campaign manager to blame. I was the architect of my loss. Why did it happen? Was it my blogging? Was it my willingness to let my old reporter buddies quote me? Or was it my penchant for being the wild card at meetings, a habit left over from my years in school trying to be the funniest kid in class? Maybe my colleagues shared my junior high school teachers' sour view of my behavior. Oh well, one can stew over a lost election forever. Like Walter Mondale and other lopsided losers, I retreated home to the comfort of my family and got past it.

Before this week's meeting, I dug into the agenda. The most interesting item was an agreement between our staff and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the mayor to pay a $5,200 fine for several campaign law violations that occurred during his 2003 race for Los Angeles City Council. He made the agreement after settlement negotiations with the staff.

Every one, even Villaraigosa's attorney, Stephen Kaufman, seemed pleased with the results.

The item was interesting because one of the charges against Villaraigosa was that he sent out mailers without notifying the ethics commission on time. This requirement is in the law to try to limit sneaky last minute mailers so beloved by campaign managers,

The list of titles of mailers fascinated me, only because I am addicted to the small details of politics. The titles showed how campaigns slice and dice the electorate, targeting segments: AV (Antonio Villaraigosa, I assume) Graffiti, must have been aimed at graffiti stricken neighborhoods; Eagle Rock Non Latino; AV Teachers; AV-Dem/AV-Dem bilingual. Eagle Rock non Latino; Mt. Washington non Latino; Mt. Washington Latino and so forth. One more: AV-Corina. That would be, I assume, the mayor's now-estranged wife.

Toward the end of the meeting, Kaufman appeared before us again. Kaufman is a really smart lawyer and a nice person, as obsessed with Bruin sports as I am with Cal. He attends all our meetings, usually speaks and is well prepared. I am starting to think of him as the sixth commissioner.

Kaufman, an election law specialist who represents many top candidates and office holders, had an idea. Generally, his ideas favor the people we regulate--office holders, candidates and lobbyists. A couple of years ago, we adopted a rule making many minor offenses "infractions," with consequences much more mild than a bigger offense. We did this because we felt candidates were being burdened and harassed with accusations over matters that were probably simple mistakes. It was making it difficult to run for office, we felt.

Kaufman proposed that this infractions policy be extended to lobbyists. I said that was not the purpose of the infractions policy. Professional lobbyists don't need such help. Kaufman was proposing to extend our well-meaning regulation to a class of people, lobbyists, who don't need protection. In fact, we need protection from them.

We'll discuss it at future meetings but as I walked out, I thought, "give them and inch and they'll take a mile."

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