Councils fail to meet community needs

USC study shows need for improvement in representing minorities.

Arin Mikailian

Daily Trojan

1/9/07

Neighborhood councils throughout Los Angeles County fail to fully serve the needs of their constituents, according to a study by USC's Civic Engagement Initiative.

The study, which reviewed the 86 neighborhood councils in the county by surveying council members, pinpointed three areas in need of improvement: under-representation of minority groups; difference of interests between the council members and constituents; and friction with city department heads.

Neighborhood councils were created to serve community residents by presenting their concerns to city councils, especially those that reflect the diversity of Los Angeles communities, said Carol Baker Tharp, deputy director of the CEI.

According to the CEI study, however, some neighborhood councils have diverted from that path. The findings indicate a majority of board members are Caucasian, while the black, Latino and Asian communities are under-represented. These findings indicate that minorities' interests are not being addressed, Tharp said.

Tharp said she encourages a council board that accurately represents the diversity of its community.

Some council members believe, however, the CEI is being too idealistic, and a substantive system of representation should continue as their format for staffing.

"It's great that you can have it completely diverse ... but I don't think that's necessarily realistic," said Charlotte Laws, a member of the Greater Valley Glen neighborhood council and the Neighborhood Council Review Commission.

Laws said it is important for a council member of any gender or ethnicity to represent all community members equally.

Tharp said she believes the lack of diversity influences the matters some neighborhood councils take on as well as citizen participation.

"Fifty years of social science research says (council members are) people who are well educated and people who are socioeconomically comfortable," she said. "People who have been here for less than five years on every dimension are less likely to participate in anything because they've just arrived, they're trying to settle, they're trying to get jobs and to get their kids in school."

Although Tharp said that Laws' argument is a legitimate claim, she said she believes under-representation leaves minorities in the dark when it comes to influencing policy, leaving a majority of the neighborhood council to tend to issues they deem as important.

"Our report is not trying to say that neighborhood council members are just self-interested," she said. "But it does point out that things that come up on their agendas more often are more likely to be things that are not representative of the concerns of the community."

The study found when it came to prioritizing, issues of land use activities and transportation were among the most common items discussed at neighborhood council meetings, each composing 39 percent and 16 percent of their agendas, respectively.

Tharp said she believes this is the case because a majority of council members are homeowners and residents of their community for more than 10 years.

However, an additional survey within the study of Los Angeles residents found their biggest concerns were public safety and education. According to the study, 10 percent of the items on neighborhood council agendas regarded public safety, and 9 percent regarded education.

Tharp said this is one of the most significant factors leaving some concerns of community residents, including minorities and the student community, unattended.

For students, this means one of their top concerns is not being tended to. Students living in USC's downtown area cited public safety as a concern always lingering in the back of their minds, especially after the sun goes down.

"I think that the area that I live in, since it's close to The Row and along University Avenue, it's not that bad," said Johnson Wang, a junior majoring in electrical engineering. "But I think just one street away on Hoover things start deteriorating a little bit Generally speaking, it's not horrible, but you know that you always have to look over your shoulder when you're walking when it starts getting dark."

Tharp said tweaking efforts in organization and outreach is just one of the answers to stimulate diversity and participation.

"If the neighborhood council is addressing things the neighborhood really cares about such as public safety," she said, "they're much more apt to turn out if it's something that's going to improve their day-to-day lives."

Matthew Klekner, secretary of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, said most matters addressed by DLANC tend to be "developed internally," either by interests council members bring or by the small number of individuals who approach the council.

"There's very few residents that come to us to address our board to say they have a problem," he said.

By branching out of their offices and canvassing their constituents to better organize their priorities, Tharp said she believes a chain reaction would begin with an increase IN word of mouth about neighborhood councils.

"You can send flyers to a thousand homes in the neighborhood," she said. "You can even send them in their own language, but that's not the same as having a neighbor or a pastor or a friend or a family member say, 'There's something that concerns us, and there's going to be a meeting about this; let's go and see if we can get this fixed.'"

Ultimately, Tharp believes this will facilitate more community-member interest, increase meeting attendance and allow members to feel more comfortable in addressing neighborhood councils.

But Klekner does not believe it is something that could be instantaneously achieved. Another fold CEI came across was the friction between neighborhood councils and city councils as well as individual council members' reluctance to cooperate.

While Klekner said he is thankful that a few of the branches of city government do cooperate, he said tension with some branches have led to difficulty in securing meeting space necessary for improving visibility.

"We have to fight tooth and nail to reserve space for us to have our meetings," he said. "The neighborhood council exists on the Internet or exists wherever we meet; it doesn't physically exist anywhere."

Tharp said researchers found some individuals working for city council have not been responsive to the needs of the neighborhood councils, which posits a serious problem for neighborhood councils doing their job effectively.

"That's how public administration people have been taught for a lot of years," she said. "'(City council members say), 'We're the experts, we know how to make things work, and the community people don't have the expertise that we have, and therefore we just need to tell them how to make it work.'"

CEI is also taking the study one step further to ensure the overall improvement of performance and effectiveness of the neighborhood councils.

Through a technique known as action research, CEI is using its findings to help make suggestions to neighborhood as well as city councils.

In December, CEI held a conference with several neighborhood council members to share its findings and to make suggestions on how to improve its shortcomings. In addition to conferences, CEI holds meetings, including the Collaborative Learning Project, with both neighborhood and city council members to ensure both are on the same level as city councils.

"One of the recommendations that we're making is not just about looking at neighborhood councils themselves," Tharp said. "We also think half of the equation is how city government reaches out to neighborhood councils."

CEI is also recommending mandatory training of council members to reduce or resolve problems with infighting. By going beyond the duty of researchers, Tharp and the rest of her team hope their involvement will inspire future citizen involvement in local government.

"If you know how to do it and you take the opportunity, you're going to have a city like no other place in America," she said. "All it takes is some responsibility to do a little bit to make our community better."
Copyright 2007 Daily Trojan

Daily Trojan - Councils fail to meet community needs