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Will LA’s Activist Left Take Over the Neighborhood Councils?

And even if they do, will it make a difference?

A Neighborhood Council ballot for the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council (HUNC).

A political realignment is taking place. The radical wave of political activism that surged through Los Angeles in 2020 and kicked cops out of the school system, removed Jackie Lacey, and delivered Nithya Raman to city council shows little sign of slowing down in 2021. Organizers are already preparing for the prize fight in 2022, when they’ll have the opportunity to replace all the local officials they love to hate, such as councilmembers Mitch O’Farrell and Joe Buscaino. In the meantime, coalitions in neighborhoods across the city are gearing up to support slate after slate of candidates with progressive platforms running largely unopposed in the oft-neglected neighborhood councils.

With elections on the horizon for 91 of the 99 councils across the city, where are these candidates coming from and why aren’t the councils already full of eager activists?

First things first: if you are interested in voting in a neighborhood council election, you must request a ballot. Each region has its own filing date. Find out the information for your region here and request a ballot before the application period for your region ends.

What are Neighborhood Councils?

While the neighborhood councils (NCs) are billed as the engine of hyperlocal government in the city of Los Angeles, they maintain a startling distance from the power of the Mayor and the City Council. They can’t write legislation and they can’t vote on it — the NCs are merely an advisory council. The power of the NCs is mostly indirect.

NCs can file community impact statements (CIS) officially endorsing or rejecting files that come before City Council — each CIS is printed in the council meeting agenda. NCs can also give money to local nonprofits and public schools through Neighborhood Purpose Grants — up to $5,000 without a written contract. It is a rare opportunity for neighborhoods to directly control funds for local projects.

Who can run and who can vote? Stakeholders. That basically means anyone who lives, works, or volunteers in a neighborhood council district can run or vote in that council. However, it’s hard to generalize because each NC is subject to their own established bylaws and verification methods, some of which are stricter than others. Always double-check with your local NC.

Why are Neighborhood Councils?

The NCs were born of the Charter Wars of the 1990s. In 1999, to stop the San Fernando Valley from seceding from the City of LA, the city created a new charter, which gave more power to the mayor and created the neighborhood council system. During that time Professor Raphael Sonenshein of Cal State LA served as director of the commission responsible for the new charter. In a class entitled Civics U 2.0 he taught in 2019, he said the strength and the weakness of the neighborhood councils is they are both “everywhere and nowhere.”

“The NCs have no direct connection to the mayor, council, or any other appointed or elected office,” writes Sonenshein. “Thus, they have the flexibility to bring their concerns to any of these bodies but also the burden of needing to be efficient with how they employ their influence.”

How Neighborhood Councils Work

Former Central Hollywood Neighborhood Council (CHNC) board member Steve Ducey (Ducey is a founding member of Ground Game LA, KNOCK.LA’s parent organization) says in practice this means the NCs often work like a democratic cul-de-sac.

“The NCs can be nimble in the sense they can lobby the Department of City Planning, or they can lobby the LAPD, or the city council office, or Parks and Recreation, and they can sort of flex their muscle where they feel it will be most effective, but also at the end of the day, nobody has to listen to you,” he said.

In his opinion, it would make more sense if each NC had a one-to-one relationship with their city council office. Ducey is a self-described socialist who joined the CHNC in 2019, he says, to counterbalance property interests on the board. During his term, Ducey organized with members of other neighborhood councils to get a citywide empty homes penalty before the city council.

First, in February, Ducey and CHNC drafted a letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council:

“The Central Hollywood Council calls upon The City to instruct the Housing, Community and Investment Department, The Department of Building and Safety and the Department of City planning, with the assistance of Chief Legislative Analyst and the City Attorney’s Office, to study similar laws in other cities prepare and present an Empty Homes and Under-Utilized Property Tax ordinance within 3 months.”

In June, Councilmember Bonin made an official motion. Over the course of the next few months, 14 neighborhood councils issued community impact statements in support of the policy. The board unanimously supported it at Los Feliz, and then CHNC, Adriane Hoff supported it at WCKNC, Greater Cypress Park, Greater Echo Park Elysian NC, and others. North Westwood NC filed a CIS against it.

But after all that work, it didn’t go through. The empty homes penalty needed city council to approve putting it on the ballot, which failed. At the end of it all, Ducey left the council, and can’t say if the juice was worth the squeeze.

He says it’s difficult to get enough like-minded people on the neighborhood councils. Still, theoretically, if there were like-minded people on all the neighborhood councils in any councilmember’s district, they could band together and make demands as a coalition. To this end more than 100 DSA members are running in 30 NCs, alongside individuals and slates of candidates running on platforms of anti-gentrification, renters rights, and defunding the police.

Progressives on Neighborhood Councils

So far, it’s been challenging for working people to get involved, says Jamie Penn, assistant secretary in WCKNC.

“It’s a volunteer position, so only people with extra time can typically engage them. Those aren’t the kinds of people you want in these seats to help serve the community, or the working class. The model isn’t good for bringing about change, or stopping targeted development from exploiting working class areas.”

The difference in 2021 is that the pandemic drove official meetings online across the city last year, giving Angelenos convenient access to their NC via Zoom from their sofa or jobsite. Many people didn’t like what they saw, and decided to get involved.

Now, whole slates of progressive candidates have announced themselves, such as the “A Better Downtown” slate running downtown (DLANC), the “Lincoln Heights Intel Slate” (LHNC), and the “K-Town Team” running for WCKNC, which Penn is a part of (though Penn is no longer affiliated with DSA-LA).

Many of the progressive candidates are running for the NCs for the first time. Likewise, Penn says she knew almost nothing about the neighborhood councils just two years ago. Now she serves as chair of the budget committee, and the NC liaison to the Lafayette Bridge Home Advisory Council.

“We’re really trying to show what can be done with a neighborhood council. While these might not be seats of power, they can be used as community organizing seats, which has been my entire approach,” she said.

Penn found the official title alone has opened up opportunities to bring together people who might not listen otherwise. As NC chair she was able to convince the National Nurses Union to sign onto a statement from WCKNC opposing LAMC 41.18, a law criticized as anti-homeless (41.18 makes it illegal to sit, lie, or sleep on public sidewalks across the city).

The bridge home was originally presented on city-owned property on Vermont St, but there was massive community opposition, and Grace Yu organized to stall the bridge homes. Out of these protests, the advocacy group K-town For All formed as a kind of counterprotest.

The main reason for the protest was the community felt they hadn’t been consulted. Councilmember Wesson’s office approved an agreement that the community should have more input, and thus the Lafayette Bridge Home Advisory Council was born. This included all the operators and advocates for the unhoused in the community and in the NC: United Way, K-Town For All, some churches, the Salvation Army (in limited capacity), and others.

Penn became one of the first NC reps to engage and use the NC as a forum to facilitate discussions between the unhoused and housed community of Koreatown with the goal of including as many different community interest groups as possible. To do this, they had to provide live translation in Spanish and Korean. Penn hopes that offering live translation at the conversations will pressure resistant members of WCKNC to adopt live translation for the NC meetings.

“We’re finding that in order to get things done in the community, it really takes organizations. I’m finding that by working with nonprofits out in the community, I have greater ability to affect the neighborhood council than just trying to organize and utilize the neighborhood council channels, if that makes sense,” said Penn.

In Lincoln Heights, the oldest suburb in LA, candidates in the Lincoln Heights Intel Slate are poised to take the NC.

The slate’s platform is centered on land rights and anti-gentrification, as members of the group originally came together on social media to fight gentrification projects. Their platform also includes renters rights, anti-displacement and protections for unhoused people.

“On our own, we’ve been battling so many of these projects bypassing the neighborhood council because our neighborhood council has been non-operational for the past year,” said Sara Clendening, who is running for president of the board as a member of the Lincoln Heights Intel Slate.

“And so we just said screw this. We’re taking over the freaking council,” she said.

Of the 11 candidates in the Lincoln Heights slate, six are running unopposed. One of the easiest ways to get on a neighborhood council is to fill a vacancy, and many candidates across the city face no opposition. Additionally, the slate’s outreach is much better than the council’s, says Clendening, especially on social media.

“They don’t even hang one flyer!” said Clendening. “A couple of years ago I was like ‘Screw it, I want the community to turn out to this planning and land use meeting,’ so I made flyers of the agenda and I was posting them on Broadway and basically I got in trouble. The neighborhood council said that I shouldn’t post flyers for the council because the BID gets mad.”

Because they are a community interest group, members of DSA-LA and Lincoln Heights Intel are stakeholders and can request a ballot, even if they don’t live in the neighborhood.

Of course, just because people have organized across the city doesn’t mean they have a coalition. While Clendening is open to working with other NCs, she doesn’t currently have relationships with members of other NCs, though one candidate of the Lincoln Heights Intel Slate, Vincent Montalvo, is affiliated with DSA-LA as part of their organizing campaign. There are also individual candidates running who aren’t connected to a broader organizing base.

In the San Fernando Valley, unhoused mother Rita Dunn is running for a seat on the conservative Chatsworth neighborhood council board on her own after volunteering to run at a local Streetwatch LA meeting in 2020.

“I’m just interested in joining the neighborhood council to keep some transparency there, and remind them that we’re all human, and not all of us are the stereotypes that they have in mind,” said Dunn.

Dunn learned about the neighborhood councils and began attending every local meeting in Chatsworth. She originally filed to run in 2020, but is on the 2021 ballot because the 2020 selection process was delayed due to Covid-19. She is running for one of 11 of the 21 board seats.

Dunn is the founder of the non-profit H-Minus: For The Unhoused, which she currently says has 250 homeless members. She thinks the local homeless community could utilize the neighborhood councils to speak for themselves before the city.

“I’m not there for anyone to like me. The main reason I’m there is to support the environment and be a liaison for the homeless community,” said Dunn. “With NIMBYs like that they’ll need a liaison.”

Dunn didn’t always live in Chatsworth. The LAPD impounded her truck after it ran out of gas towing her dogs, child, and the trailer to the valley for an appointment with the Department of Social Services about five years ago.

Soon after losing the truck, the trailer was impounded too, and Dunn moved into a tent in an encampment by the train tracks. The encampment has faced repeated comprehensive CARE+ sweeps in 2020 and 2021.

Life in the encampment is fraught with uncertainty, she says. People living by the train tracks are constantly in fear that law enforcement, railroad workers, or any variety of bureaucrat from the city could arrive at any moment to destroy their belongings and force them to move. Many of them have lost their trust in city workers, and outreach volunteers, so Dunn hopes they can use the NCs to negotiate with the city for better treatment.

“I would like to see people that are homeless doing outreach for the homeless communities (or in-reach) because what you have right now is people that are outsiders who are unfamiliar to us,” said Dunn. “They’re not invested in it like somebody unhoused would be. If you gave us jobs to be outside all day engaging with the community and getting them in housing, it’d be much better and I think people that are homeless would be able to know their community well enough to place the right people.”

The neighborhood councils may not have direct power, but in the right hands, they can fund community projects, delay unwanted developments, embarrass public leaders, and perhaps much more. While there are significant difficulties in wielding them to their fullest potential, the newest wave of candidates running on progressive platforms may have the scope, determination, and creativity to shake things up in their communities, and gain further leverage in local government. But, their success won’t just depend on their performance in the upcoming elections, but on their ability to form coalitions with other councils and organizations in the community.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Vincent Montalvo was endorsed by DSA-LA, but he is, in fact, simply affiliated with that organization. The language in the article has been updated to reflect that.

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