Neighborhood Councils: White, Rich, Homeowners

By Jim Smith

There is new evidence to substantiate what many have long suspected - L.A.'s neighborhood councils do not represent or reflect the population of the city.

The councils, which are spread across the city, are too white, too rich and too slanted toward homeowners. The evidence comes from the preliminary results of a Cal State Fullerton survey conducted about neighborhood councils. It has been posted on the web at (click on CityWatch report).

The survey, conducted by Social Science Research Center at CSU Fullerton, which is run by Raphael Sonenshein, purports to be a random sampling of past and present neighborhood council officers. Its data describes a system that is skewed against renters, Latinos, and those with household incomes under $100,000 a year. The results are for the entire Los Angeles neighborhood council system. (The Venice Council currently includes two Latinos and two African-Americans out of 21 board members.)

Here are the percentages taken from the neighborhood council (NC) survey, and compared with the latest census data for Los Angeles:

Renters on NC: 11.4%
Renters in LA: 61.4%

Whites on NC: 71.7%
Whites in LA: 30%

Latinos on NC: 10%
Latinos in LA: 48%

African-Americans on NC: 10.4%
African-Americans in LA: 10%

Asians on NC: 4.2%
Asians in LA: 11%

$100,000+ household income on NC: 42.4%
$100,000+ household income in LA: 17%

Not reported in the survey was the percentage of non-English speaking residents of Los Angeles. However, it is likely to be skewed from the population. A case in point is the Venice Neighborhood Council which under Progressive leadership had purchased interpreting equipment. After it was turned over to the new non-progressive faction that ran the Board, beginning in 2006, it was never used again.

Other evidence that neighborhood councils may have outlived their usefulness was reflected at the hearings sponsored by the Neighborhood Council Review Commission, a body mandated by the city charter to recommend changes in the NC system to the city council.

At a meeting called for the entire westside on July 12, only three Venetians showed up at University High, and none of them were on the Venice Neighborhood Council Board. There were a sprinkling of board members from NCs in Mar Vista, West L.A., Westchester, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades. Most of the nearly all white audience that did turn out wanted fundamental changes in the councils including restricting it to residents (currently those who work or own property but don't live in the district can also run for office).
According to Mark Siegel, an NC Review Commissioner, a July 16 meeting in the San Fernando Valley produced a higher turnout but the only Latino in the room was L.A. City Councilmember Richard Alarcon, who had come to welcome the group. Siegel, a long-time backer of neighborhood councils and founder of the website, acknowledged the imbalance found in the Cal State survey, and said: “It is preposterous to think that we are representatives of the entire community and therefore deserve more power.”

The neighborhood council system was founded for some rather cynical reasons during the regime of former Mayor Richard Riordan. He was faced with two problems. Parts of the city, including the Valley, Hollywood and the Harbor, were considering secession. At the same time, he believed the mayor did not have enough power. His solution was to revise the city charter to shift power from the city council to the mayor, and to include a neighborhood council system to win public support for the charter revision.

The new neighborhood councils were promoted as an alternative to secession. Ultimately, only the Valley voted to secede, but its vote was overruled by the negative vote in the rest of the city. The neighborhood council system also served as a potential counterbalance to the growing power of labor movement based on Latino and African-American voters. Not a bad development in the eyes of Republican Riordan.

Seven years down the line many neighborhood councils have become tools of homeowner groups and chambers of commerce. Residents, particularly those who rent and are below the medium income remain disempowered. The abysmal findings of the 2007 CSU Fullerton survey are even worse in many categories than were those of the June 2004 USC Neighborhood Participation Project's survey. This means that no progress toward making neighborhood councils more representative has been made in three years, or indeed, since their founding in 2000-01.

Perhaps one of the options the review commission should recommend to the city council is that the neighborhood councils, which seem to be dying a slow death, should be put out of their misery. The people of Los Angeles - and Venice - need real power in their communities, but it will not likely be handed down from above.

Posted: Wed - August 1, 2007 at 11:35 AM