Who should shape neighborhood councils? The debate intensifies

They’ve been dubbed ‘Starbucks Stakeholders’, ridiculed as modern carpet baggers because they vote in LA Neighborhood Council elections even though they only bought a cup of coffee in the area. , rather than a home or business.

Although the term is relatively new to the political vernacular of Los Angeles, the concept has become the focus of a decade-long debate over who the city’s 100 or so advisory councils represent and how vulnerable they are to ” takeovers” of vested interests.

Councils are designed to be broadly democratic and open to almost anyone. But city councilor Jose Huizar recently proposed limiting the voting power of people with only tenuous ties to a community.

Two months ago, a bitter ward council election in Eagle Rock — a community represented by Huizar — reignited the debate over who should be able to vote. Marijuana dispensaries and their allies have been accused of mobilizing outsiders to influence the outcome. At stake was an ongoing battle over dispensaries; activists touted a slate of candidates for the panel, which had previously urged city hall to curb the growth of pot shops.

Since 2008, city rules have allowed anyone doing business in a neighborhood to vote as a “factual stakeholder,” and at least one labor organizer has urged supporters to buy “gas, coffee , whatever” and show the receipt to vote. .

Eagle Rock resident Shauna Smith saw a particularly odd flyer on Election Day. Below the list of pro-dispensary candidates was an offer printed in colorful letters: $40 worth of marijuana in exchange for a vote in the race.

“I was livid,” said Smith, whose husband also ran for a council seat but lost. “There are a lot of issues facing Eagle Rock. That shouldn’t be the definition.

Although she supported legalizing the drug with proper regulation, Smith filed a voter challenge and learned that more than a third of Eagle Rock’s 800 voters that day were foreigners. In the last elections, only 101 people voted.

The city agency overseeing this year’s election said there was little it could have done in Eagle Rock’s election. “I’m supposed to make voting easy and hard to cheat,” said Stephen Box, who helped coordinate the elections for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. He pointed out that almost 500 people who live, work or own a business in the area voted, calling it a “success story”.

Only two of the eight candidates on the list were elected in the October 13 contest. But the episode has some people wondering if LA’s experiment with this microcosm of democracy is working.

Born out of ideals of openness and inclusion, the neighborhood councils were in part an effort to appease residents of the San Fernando Valley who, in 2002, attempted to sever ties with Los Angeles and form a separate city .

City leaders hoped the councils would give remote Los Angeles neighborhoods a voice beyond the marble hallways of City Hall. Today, the obscure and localized signs gather in school auditoriums and churches. They have acquired business cards and annual budgets, and some have their own press officers for increasingly sophisticated PR machines. But volunteers often lack expertise and a handful of councils have been plagued by infighting.

Stories of election shenanigans abound, some retold and retold to the point of becoming urban legend.

There is the one where Raku, a black Labrador, resident of Venice, voted. Allegations of child voters are perpetually thrown around after elections.

In 2004, a developer from the 1,000-acre community of Playa Vista ferried his construction workers, some from as far away as Riverside County, to a ward council election in Westchester. They arrived, some holding up a flyer inviting them to bring their pay stubs and promising “Free food! Free beer!” after.

The developer insisted that its workers were legitimate actors whose jobs depended on the neighborhood. But many local residents said the developer stole the vote, adding several Playa Vista supporters to the council.

The experience left many disillusioned, said Rex Frankel, a local resident who has opposed Playa Vista in numerous lawsuits. “The community doesn’t get involved in the council,” choosing instead to participate in other groups, he said.

“You really pervert the process when you allow anyone in because they have a singular interest in voting for a day,” said East Hollywood Neighborhood Council member Doug Haines, who said his own council had been targeted by lists of candidates, including some non-residents, pro-development and liquor stores.

Haines, like many others who participate in ward councils, pays close attention to city politics and regularly attends city council meetings. He speaks passionately against development projects and frequently files lawsuits to stop them.

Every morning, he walks the streets of his neighborhood – picking up trash, removing graffiti – and is frustrated that people with no real interest in the neighborhood council can achieve results. “It really poisons the authenticity of the system,” he said.

Mark Haskell-Smith, who ran on the Eagle Rock roster, said dispensary clients, many of whom live outside Eagle Rock, are no different from gym members. “If someone from the ward council has made it their mission to shut down the place where he gets his medicine, it affects his life,” he said, “even though he lives next door in Echo Park”.

Greg Nelson, who once headed the city agency that oversees the councils, said if people had the energy and desire to sit on multiple ward councils, they should. The founding philosophy of the councils was to maximize participation, he said. “It’s not about one man, one vote.”

Ward council boards vary in size from nine to 45 members. Huizar proposed limiting the number of seats that stakeholders can influence to two.

But making that change could be a daunting task. Each board has its own bylaws and defines stakeholders differently.

“The fundamental challenge is how to keep the doors open for participation on neighborhood councils without compromising the integrity of what they do,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

Sonenshein, an early architect of the councils, said his heart sank when he heard about “Starbucks stakeholders” in the Eagle Rock election. “It certainly wasn’t the original idea, that you were going to organize the arrival of people who don’t have a fundamental interest in the district,” he said.

But separating genuinely interested people from others can be problematic. “Who is going to make this decision? said Sonenshein.

Despite the complications, Sonenshein is heartened, saying power struggles like these demonstrate the signs’ growing ability to influence city leaders and private interests. “If it were empty ships, no one would bother to stretch the rules.”

[email protected]

Comments are closed.