Who can run for local council?
Neighborhood groups fear interference by business and others.

Staff Writer

Tackling one of the most contentious issues facing Los Angeles' neighborhood council system, the panel charged with reviewing the grass-roots network is weighing who should have a say in the councils.

Residents and business owners are obvious stakeholders. But what about a Realtor? Should a Realtor be able to run for a seat on neighborhood councils in areas where they are selling homes?

Should a Northridge resident be able to serve on a committee of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council because his child goes to school in that community?

What about someone who lunches three times a week at Pink's Hot Dogs? Should she be able to vote for the Mid City West Community Council?

Ultimately, the definition of a stakeholder is at the heart of the debate over the entire neighborhood council system: What role do the boards play in Los Angeles city government and who is allowed to represent a neighborhood.

"There has been a persistent worry that neighborhood councils will be taken over by groups who don't really represent the community," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Neighborhood Council Review Commission, a 29-member board charged with analyzing and reforming the city's system of grass-roots democracy.

"If the system is going to work, the doors have to be affirmatively open. The answer is not to make the doors less open in the beginning, but to figure out what to do when people come in the door," he said.

In that spirit, the review commission recently adopted a definition of stakeholder that welcomes anyone who lives, works or does business in a neighborhood - plus anyone who says they have a stake in the community through an affiliation.

It's a wide definition that leaves some questions - including whether an affinity for Pink's Hot Dogs would qualify as an affiliation.

"We ultimately went for the broad definition and what is going to make the most people participate in city government," said Jason Lyon, co-chairman of the commission and a member of the Silverlake Neighborhood Council.

Local boards can be structured, with seats divided between different stakeholder groups - such as homeowners, renters, business owners, workers and others - so no one group can dominate a council.

Still, some community members worry the broad definition will weaken neighborhood councils and leave them open to takeovers by special interests.

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Who can run for local council?
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Former Sun Valley Neighborhood Council member Jerry Piro said local trash companies bused workers to vote in a recent council election, bumping him and other activists off the board in favor of more business-friendly representatives.

He fears the new board will fail to aggressively question several major trash-facility expansions.

I feel these are absentee landlords," Piro said. "The title itself says neighborhood council and that's the people who live here and that's who should have the largest voice."

At least twoneighborhood councils - coastal San Pedro and Westchester/Playa del Rey - voted to oppose the proposed definition.

The Westchester/Playa del Rey board said expanding the definition would "displace and dilute the representation of those who live, work and own property within its current boundary."

But commission member Charlotte Laws, who sits on the Valley Glen Neighborhood Council, said the current stakeholder qualification varies among councils - and that's confusing for people who want to participate.

Her own council says members of community organizations can run for election to the neighborhood council board only if their group is an official tax-exempt nonprofit.

But that excluded a local Valley Glen group that helps the homeless because they're not registered with the Internal Revenue Service.

"I'm a real estate agent. I sell in a lot of neighborhoods and there were many communities that I didn't know if I was a stakeholder or not," Laws said.

"With the new definition, at least I know there is a place for me somewhere."


Public Hearings: The Neighborhood Council Review Commission has released recommendations on reforming the neighborhood council system and will discuss them at hearings this month including one in the Harbor Area: 6 p.m. July 19 at L.A. Harbor College, 1111 Figueroa Place, Wilmington. For a list of recommendations, go to www.ncrcla.org/

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