Friday, January 25, 2008

Troubles with the LA Neighborhood Councils

Commissioner Diane Middleton resigned from the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners recently. Her parting shots suggest that there are many problems that need to be dealt with in the future to ensure a better council system.

There are two things that she said that stand out for me, however. Her statement that the councils are dominated by homeowners groups and otherwise have poor participation is important. As more communities (and a majority of new residential developments) feature homeowners associations there is a shift towards private governance. Considering this trend, what is the role of the neighborhood councils? The councils may be duplicating some of the activities of homeowners associations. Of course, neighborhoods with a high share of renters, who are not part of homeowners associations, may be better served by a city sponsored council. Renters are a notoriously difficult group to get involved in local politics for a variety of reasons, so any new representation of renters interests is probably good. Certainly representation for the economic interests in a neighborhood (local business, etc.) is worthwhile.

The second thing she said in that there is a bias towards saying no:

“There has been a woeful lack of positive input and a focus on saying NO,” she complained, “NO to affordable housing, NO to economic development, NO to fees that pay for needed services, NO to outreach to community based organizations.”

One of the goals of the neighborhood councils was to improve local vision and get positive input. Local groups have a long history of using veto power to block projects. This power is related to NIMBYism and gathered legitimacy during the period of urban renewal, freeway building and early environmentalism. If the only thing that the neighborhood councils accomplish is to veto city development and block change the councils are a failure. I suspect that one reason that the councils focus on blocking things rather than creating things is that the councils are still left out of the planning process to a large degree. For instance, councils have no control over zoning, but giving them at least some of that authority would be a good move, especially for the councils that want the power.

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