My Comments regarding the USC Civic Engagement Initiative

 By Charlotte Laws

Below you will find my comments related to the findings and recommendations presented by USC researchers on Saturday, December 16, 2006. I am specifically concentrating on items of potential disagreement or that I feel are in need of further clarification.     

1. USC conclusion: Neighborhood Councils (NCs) are not descriptively representative of the social, economic and educational diversity of Los Angeles residents.

My question: Since these findings are based on questionnaires from only a portion of NC members, is it possible the response rate was greater from boardmembers in certain socio-economic groups? Would the highly educated, for example, be more likely to return questionnaires? (In 2003, 66% of NC members returned questionnaires; and in 2006, only 46% did).

My question: How do these figures correlate with representation on other political bodies (i.e. the City Council, the State Assembly, the US Congress)? I understand that minorities and the less educated are under-represented with respect to all political bodies. If so, should neighborhood councils be held to a higher or different standard? If so, why?

* Acc. to CNN, minorities are under-represented in political offices throughout the nation. It is better in California than in many states: 25% of California Assembly members are Latino; 33% - 35% of the population is Latino.

My comment: The USC researchers only compare the composition of neighborhood councils with those of boards and commissions. They find that boards and commissions are more diverse, but this is an unfair comparison. Boards and commissions are appointed positions; therefore, the mayor or city council can guarantee the body is comprised of different ethnicities, classes and educational backgrounds. Neighborhood council members are generally elected. The people decide who will win the position without any aim to create a “mixed board.” It would be more reasonable to compare NCs with other elected bodies.

My comment: Descriptive representation is desirable, but substantive representation can be sufficient. Example: there is no reason to believe that a white, male City Councilmember is unable to properly (and substantively) represent the interests of women and people of color. It is unfair to assume that NC members cannot sufficiently represent the interests of their community simply because they may not “look like” the community. The better question is “Do they think like the community and make decisions in an impartial way, taking all interests into consideration?” 

Note: USC researchers say nothing has increased “descriptive representation.” Perhaps it is hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

My comment: The fact that the highly educated are serving on NCs need not be viewed as problematic. By joining a NC, the highly educated bring their knowledge to the table in an effort to help their community.

2.  USC conclusion: Outreach has increased, but neighborhood council participation (and diverse participation) has decreased.

My comment: Don’t studies show that group participation tends to decrease or stagnate after the first phase? Then it tends to gain steam again? If so, are NCs at the end of this first phase?

Paper called Limits to Citizen Participation: The Decline of Community Organizations by Marilyn Gittel may shed some light on this.

My question: Are there other reasons for a decline in participation? Could infighting be a cause for the decline? Are some people alienated or bored at NC meetings, especially those unfamiliar with meeting settings? Could better translation services help with diversity? Could standardized bylaws and election procedures reduce conflicts, thus increasing participation? When an individual has a “personality” conflict with another boardmember, he / she often uses the rules (i.e, the bylaws, the Brown Act, etc.) as ammunition. Establishing a Dispute Resolution Commission in each planning area to arbitrate disputes could be beneficial.  It would allow NCs to conduct business (without meeting disruptions) while impartial decision-makers rule on conflicts.

My comments: I like the USC researchers’ suggestion that NCs could focus on community projects rather than (always) center their activities around meetings. I think this will increase diverse participation. A “project” could be an issue (such as mansionization, public safety or transportation), or it could be an event (like a holiday party or planting day in the community).

My question: Community participation is low at City Council meetings as well as Board and Commission meetings. Should higher expectations be placed on NCs? If so, why?

According to Democracy and Citizen participation in the U.S.: The Role of Local Government, minorities tend to participate more in decentralized political organizations rather than in centralized ones. Perhaps this suggests that Neighborhood Councils should be expected to have greater minority participation than other political bodies. In addition, NC meetings and activities are more accessible to the public, which means it is easier for those using public transportation to participate.

3. USC conclusion: There is an increase in internal NC conflict, and elections are increasingly being viewed as unfair.

My comment: When NCs first came into being, many boardmembers literally “walked into” positions on their boards. There was a lack of competition; and therefore few complaints.

As time has passed, competition has increased. Competition naturally leads to complaints. Many losers complain about the winners.

How many voters in America think the election process for any office (president, congress, city council) is fair (with special interest campaign donations, an exclusive two-party system, electronic voting machines, etc.)? Remember the Florida Supreme Court? I think there is a widespread perception that all elections are unfair. This issue goes well beyond the NC system.

Because NCs are local, there is a belief that election results can be overturned. Some people are vocal in an attempt to oust the winner from his / her seat. With a national, state or city election, the feeling is one of defeat. No one believes his / her complaint will be heard. No one believes he or she could overturn an “unfair” election, so no one tries.

It would be interesting to analyze whether there is greater dissatisfaction with the elected or selected seats on NCs. Selected offices by their very nature create an aura of unfairness. Some will say, “Why did she get picked and not me? Was there some special favor or pay out?” With respect to my NC, the selected offices have generated complaints, grievances and outbursts at meetings.  I think it is important that all board positions be elected.

I also believe that much of the perceived election unfairness is centered around “definitions of stakeholder.” Many get upset when  “outsiders” are “bused in” to vote. A change in the definition of stakeholder could resolve the problem.

It should also be noted that much of the infighting is related to a prior election / selection. When these issues are cleared up, the fighting may substantially end. 

4. USC recommendation: Neighborhood Councils should put funds into activities that appeal to the under-represented.

My comment: This is a dangerous, bordering on racist, recommendation, although I know this is not what the researcher intended. What exactly is the preferred activity of someone who is a minority or who is not affluent? I do not believe people of certain races or economic levels have “preferred activities” based upon their group. To say they do is to generalize or stereotype.

If a male were to say, “We need more women to join the NC system, so I recommend putting funds into female activities,” I would call this sexist. What exactly is a female activity? Knitting and cooking? Women enjoy the same activities as men, as far as I know. All depends upon the individual, not his or her sex.

After the presentation at USC, I inquired further about this recommendation. I asked, “What is an under-represented group?”

I added, “On my council, we have tremendous difficulty getting people to fill the business owner seats. They are almost always vacant. Is this an under-represented group? If so, what would be a preferred ‘business owner activity’?”

Dr. Musso answered that she was not talking about business owners; she was referring to “the poor and minorities.” I asked, “What is a preferred activity of a poor individual or someone deemed a minority?” She replied, “Maybe going to the park.” I replied, “As far as I know, everyone enjoys the park.” 

If Dr. Musso meant NCs should make an effort to put time and funds into issues (rather than activities) that impact the poor and minorities, then I would say this makes more sense. For example, our council passed a motion to help those who ride the bus. (No one on our council rides the bus). * However, I must also note that no one from the bus rider group have attended any of our NC meetings since. 

5.  USC conclusion: NCs are disconnected from the general public on issues and should align themselves better with what interests the public. They found that NCs are more interested in land use, public safety and transportation while stakeholders are interested in education, jobs and public safety. In fact, they stated that NCs are interested in “land use” but not “housing.”

My comments: First, land use and housing are the same thing! Secondly, the USC data on this topic was obtained from NC agendas, which are often written in an unclear manner. Land use / housing items often have nothing more than a street address and an indication that it is some sort of real estate project. The agenda item could be describing a low-income housing project or something altogether different. There would be no way for researchers to tell without further inquiry. It is likely false assumptions were made.

In addition, land use projects tend to affect the community in numerous ways. Developers present “density bonus” and mixed-used projects. These may be called “land use” by some, but they most certainly affect housing and affordability.

Land use / housing projects affect construction jobs and businesses in the area. They affect the environment and public safety. They may affect the safety of school children (with parking congestion and dangerous traffic conditions). In fact, the safety of children who walk to school is repeatedly discussed on my council with respect to land use projects. Maybe the USC researchers should have classified these agenda items under their “education” category.      

My comments: How much control does a NC have over jobs and schools anyway? Very little. It is arguably easier for NCs to affect change when it comes to land use / housing, public safety and transportation, and this may be why they expend their energy in this direction. 

The City Council can better bring about change with respect to jobs and education. I would suggest a survey of their agendas to determine exactly how much time they spend on these particular issues since these are supposedly the issues their constituents care about. 


My comments are meant as constructive. I have only focused on problems and / or disagreements that I have with the research presented at the meeting on 12/16/06.

I am not mentioning those items with which I agree.

The USC researchers have presented interesting and important data. They have made some excellent suggestions, some of which I am certain the 912 Commission will adopt.