Crash Course: L.A.’s Neighborhood Councils and the 2021 NC Elections

We are officially one week away from the first candidate filing deadline of the 2021 Neighborhood Council (NC) elections. To coincide with my interview on J.T. The L.A. Storyteller Podcast, I’d like to share some additional information for people interested in getting involved with L.A.’s unique Neighborhood Council system.

In the East Hollywood area, which is a part of Region 5, their candidate filing deadline is on December 28th, 2020.

Each week after, there’ll be another regional candidate filing deadline. I’ll explain more about all of this later, but just know these deadlines are coming fast! You can find them all by region HERE.

I plan to update my Twitter thread on the Neighborhood Council system regularly and I encourage readers to drop questions, resources, and updates of their own there. I’ll do my best to answer questions and ensure accuracy, but we should always double check with the election admins on the technical stuff. But here is the low-down.

FIRST THINGS FIRST: WHAT IS AN NC?


There have been countless ways people have described and explained NCs. Here’s a great one from a community source @LAPaysAttention. And if you want the “official” description of NCs, you can find it here from the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE).

With that said, as someone who once served as an Independent Election Administrator for NC elections and recently as a Neighborhood Council Advocate at DONE, here’s my best, relatively brief of the who, what, why, and how of NCs.

WHY DO NCs EXIST?


Neighborhood Councils exist, in large part, because L.A. City is huge and governed by only 15 City Council Members who have historically refused to share their power equitably with the community groups and residents who have been demanding it for decades. L.A. has arguably the most powerful City Council in the nation (maybe not pound-for-pound; Vernon comes to mind).

“When it comes to having a say over what happens in their districts and in the lives of LA’s four million residents, they have a huge impact.”


NCs were created, in part, as a response to specific demands to actually change the power structure, for example, by adding more City Council members, or curbing formal powers like the ability to approve land-use exemptions, and so on. But over time, the way NCs have generally operated (along with the fact that NCs were created while more systemic changes were not dealt with) has led many to believe that NCs do no more than placate a large swath of people who don’t know what type of change is really needed. This would have been a fair critique even at the inception of NCs, but it did not have to play out as it has, and opportunities to make them better for the future remain available.

So to recap, NCs were created (and now exist), in theory, to flatten the power structure in L.A. City government and make it more accessible for everyday people. For many reasons, NCs very clearly have not helped us get closer to achieving this goal. But, as I said, this does not mean they cannot be improved to this going forward. 

WHAT ARE NCs?

NCs are quasi-government bodies made up entirely of volunteers. Some volunteers serve as formal board members, either elected by voters or appointed by other board members. Others serve as committee members, liaisons, or representatives, all of whom are only ever appointed by board members. Committee members, liaisons, and representatives generally also have less of a time commitment. 

There are 99 NCs throughout L.A. City proper and they do not cover independent cities like Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and others nearby. Each NC has slightly different rules, structures, and board seats, but they are all bound by a “hierarchy of laws,” from the U.S. Constitution at the top, all the way down to NC bylaws, which are the rules set by the NCs themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, they do not report to, and are not subordinate to any City entity, including the Mayor’s office, the L.A. City Council, or even DONE.

“They are, like the L.A. City Council, beholden only to the stakeholders/voters they serve.”


Like the L.A. City Council, their actions and goals are constrained by an L.A. City bureaucracy (most notably, DONE) and the Office of the City Attorney, each of which have the ability to stifle NC actions if they don’t comport with the aforementioned hierarchy of laws.

Unlike the L.A. City Council, NCs do not have their own staff (at least in any meaningful sense) and, except for their own very modest budgets (recently as little as $32K/year), they cannot command or direct city resources, including employees. As a result, in order for them to do any work, they have to rely almost entirely on themselves and other volunteers.

HOW DO NCs WORK? 

NCs are all about “soft” power, and the people who believe in soft power. For example, if someone asked you if the Vice President of the US is powerful, and you answer that they are not, then the NC system is probably not your type of governing tool. In other words, if you’re the kind of person who thinks that formal or “hard” power is the be-all and end-all, then you will find NCs endlessly frustrating and unworthy of your time.

Examples of soft power in the NC system are credibility, networks, and public pressure through convening power granted to NCs by the Brown Act (more on this specific facet later). 

If you’re familiar with NCs, you’ve probably heard they don’t make final decisions on City policy or actions, or they are just advisory. This is correct. It’s easy to lament how unfortunate that is for NCs, but it’s better, in my opinion, to recognize the fact that there are still many opportunities to influence the key processes in City government if you’re willing to create and use your power.

Per the L.A. City Charter, NCs have been tasked with the following mandate:

“[to] promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs.”


So, what dynamic does this create for NCs? The view that I hold, along with many others (including many of the founders of this system), is that NCs are supposed to be a counterbalance to the all-powerful L.A. City Council, or that they are supposed to be their adversaries. 

But this is generally not how NCs have functioned over the last two decades. On the contrary, many NCs have consistently supported their L.A. City Council members wholesale, and some have even carried water for L.A. City Council members’ agendas. 

Sure, NCs can partner with L.A. City Council Members and align with them from time to time, depending on the situation. But it’s certainly not supposed to be a system where NCs are subservient to City Council or government agencies biased towards the L.A. City Council which determines the NC budgets.

So, the short answer to the question of how NCs effect change is that they have to be willing to challenge the existing power structures. If they’re not doing that, then they’re perpetuating a very precarious and even immoral status quo. This is also because–if it fits neatly under the “how” of NCs–of something known as the Brown Act.

Because it’s so important to how NCs work, here’s a quick note on the Brown Act. The Brown Act is a California law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies, including NC meetings. It has other provisions that govern communications between local elected officials, but the open meetings facet is the most relevant here. 

If you ask an NC board member what they think of the Brown Act, 99% of them will tell you 99% of the time (when they aren’t feeling particularly enthusiastic) that they view it as an onerous obligation they simply have to put up with. 

They are mostly right that abiding by the Brown Act is tedious (especially the ways in which the City Attorney tends to rigidly interpret it–at least for NCs). However, the Brown Act actually endows NCs with one of their most important powers: their public convening power.

“In fact, the Brown Act is what separates NCs from Homeowners Associations (HOAs).”


Whereas HOAs provide no guarantee that the public is welcome to attend their meetings or that, once they attend, they will be heard, the Brown Act explicitly guarantees that NCs must provide such opportunities.  Again, for many, this seems like a burden. But it’s actually a very good thing. When the NC calls a meeting, it’s inviting the whole community. That implicit invitation is one of the few advantages NCs have over non-government organizations.

WHO ARE THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE UP THE NC SYSTEM? 


Okay, so now that you know that NCs are made up entirely of volunteers, it’s useful to note that the NC system also offers what is arguably the most inclusive form of democracy this side of the galaxy. Their rules are as such that they allow for people to serve and vote regardless of their citizenship status or felony conviction status. And most NCs allow people to serve as young as 14 years old! 

Traditionally, NCs have been dominated by residents of a given neighborhood, many of whom are, disproportionately, the well-to-do, home-owning residents. This makes a lot of sense at first. The people who are most interested in affecting (and let’s be honest, it’s often “protecting”) their neighborhood are usually people who have a significant stake in it, as well as people who have the time and the means to do so. That wealthy people want to protect their neighborhoods is not surprising. This dominance by homeowners is one of many reasons why people have accused NCs of being glorified HOAs.

Ultimately, though, what’s the difference between someone who’s lived in a community for 25 years as a homeowner or 25 years as a renter? The short answer is wealth. Both groups have significant stakes in their communities and both care about them, but wealth affords homeowners the opportunity and capacity to participate in NCs at much higher rates. 

This doesn’t make it right. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Renters and unhoused residents often can serve in most of the same seats occupied by homeowners. And I’d argue we have a democratic imperative to demand they serve at rates at least commensurate with their numbers in the NC area more generally, which could help ensure that perspectives of those most often marginalized are better heard in this system and at L.A. City Hall than they have been historically. 

NCs also have significant numbers of seats open to people who have other, non-resident stakes in their communities, including seats for employees in a given area, business owners, students, and other folks. All NCs are required to have at least one seat that is open to all stakeholder types, which is usually called the “community interest” seat, but it can also be an “at-large” seat.

The existence and number of seats on a given NC have created some interesting NC elections, sometimes resulting in “takeovers” by those who organized specifically on behalf of special interests like a business or a charter school.  

NC ELECTIONS


NC elections are administered by LA City Clerk. This means they’re the ones you’re working with to file as a candidate for, or vote in, NC elections. They also have the final decision-making authority over election disputes. 

However, DONE and the City Attorney play important roles as well, including, but not limited to:

  1. Helping L.A. City Clerk sort out inconsistencies in bylaws, which affect who is eligible to run for certain seats, among other things.
  2. Recruiting panel members to hear and decide election disputes.
  3. Promoting NC elections so people actually know they’re happening. 

But the L.A. City Clerk does not really have a dedicated outreach effort for NC elections so most of the work falls on DONE and individual NCs to do this. 

ELIGIBILITY TO RUN AS AN NC CANDIDATE

  1. If you want to run as a candidate, first things first, you have to find your NC. You can do that HERE.
  2. You should research your NC’s bylaws, which you can find HERE.

Your NC’s bylaws will describe what qualifications you need for a given seat. This information is found in each bylaws’ “Attachment B,” but descriptions and qualifications aren’t always clear. However, L.A. City Clerk does a good job of prompting you throughout the candidate filing process for what you need to satisfy the given requirements. You can find the various City Clerk Election Administrators HERE. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them with any questions.

REMEMBER

  1. Your residence is just one way to establish stakeholder status. Depending on the seat type, you may also qualify based on where you work, where you go to school, even where you volunteer, among other things.
  2. Some NCs have sub-districts, so if you want to run for one of those seats, you’ll have to do more research about which one you qualify for.
  3.  ALL NCs are required to have at least one seat that is open to all stakeholder types.
  4. Find the seat that best suits your vision, both as an area of focus (e.g. as a “Business Rep”, if applicable to your NC) and who you may want to run with (e.g. as a slate). 

SOME NOTES ON YOUR CAMPAIGN AND GETTING OUT THE VOTE


Being registered to vote with L.A. County, that is, for regular elections, does not automatically prove you are eligible to run for a seat or even vote in your NC’s elections.

“And unfortunately, the NC voting systems run by the L.A. City Clerk don’t communicate with the voting systems at the L.A. County’s office, so you now have to submit qualifications to the L.A. City Clerk to prove your eligibility to vote or run for a seat.”


In past NC elections, voter registration was almost always done in-person, on election day and at polling sites (online voting and the very rare vote-by-mail elections excepted). Pre-registration has rarely been used. However, due to the health crisis this year, the NCs 2021 elections will be done entirely through vote-by-mail.

“Everyone will have to pre-register and prove their voter eligibility (which varies by NC and by ballot type–not all voters get the same ballots, depending on your stakeholder status) to receive a VBM ballot. “


Another important note about NC voting: Voter registration does not carry over from election to election. This means even if you’ve voted for NC elections before, you have to re-register every election. This is a huge pain for voters who have to prove their eligibility every election cycle, but, for better or worse, there are legitimate reasons they have to do this. I also have many thoughts on how to improve this, with small compromises, but that’s a conversation for another day.

KEY DATES


NC election dates are separated by region. This means there are different dates in each region for voting deadlines, candidate filing windows, results certifications, etc. Remember, in an all vote-by-mail election, the election date is really an election window with a final deadline. There is no one day that people vote.

The L.A. City Clerk’s office presents info in a way to focus people on their regional deadlines, but that also makes it hard to find info in one place. You can find your respective region HERE.

Also, the L.A. City Clerk’s reasoning for separating the elections by region rather than holding everything on the same dates is ultimately administrative, claiming they need to extend out the dates to make the elections easier to manage. But one could argue that if the clerk’s office had the resources, they could easily manage this process with one set of dates; so it’s ultimately about whether or not they ask for, and then receive those resources. 

As mentioned, these dates are coming up fast, so if you’re considering running, get started now. 

SOME FINAL NOTES ON RUNNING FOR A SEAT

While the filing deadlines are hard deadlines–meaning if it occurs to you on December 29th that you want to run for the East Hollywood NC, you’ll be out of luck since their region’s candidate filing deadline is on the 28th. 

However, the L.A. City Clerk is extremely accommodating when it comes to extenuating circumstances and will work with you if you’re having issues. Their technology is not foolproof and they recognize that. They also offer paper candidate filing apps, but, in my opinion, those leave too much room for error and you should opt for online whenever possible.

For example, if it’s close to the deadline and you lose access to the internet, you can reliably call the L.A. City Clerk during business hours and tell them you want to start the process and they will help you, even if you can’t file yourself through the portal. Also, sometimes, just an email explaining your circumstances can go a long way in providing the leeway you need. 

The most important thing to note about this deadline is that it represents the date at which you must signal your intention to run. After you inform the office of your candidacy, they give you three days to produce the actual qualifying documents to prove you’re eligible to run. So you have a window to get stuff together. They’ll work with you here as well. 

A list of “acceptable documentation” can be found here in the 2021 NC Elections Documentation Guide.

Also, when the L.A. City Clerk states that they “reserve the right to accept identification or documents not included in this guide,” know that they mean it. They are not trying to be vague. They will genuinely work with you to find a way to prove what you’re saying is true. That’s it. 

Finally, if you later realize you don’t actually want to run, you can withdraw your name any time during an approximately two-week window after candidate filing closes. If you miss that deadline, it’s honestly no big deal. This is one of those rare instances when the NC system maintaining such a low profile is actually not such a bad thing!

Last thing: even with all its shortcomings, I genuinely want you to consider running for your NC, especially if any of the following describes you:

  1. You are genuinely looking to promote policies that shift power towards the people who desperately need it right now. There is definitely not enough of this in NCs, so we need more people who are looking to create real change.
  2. You can navigate existing power structures with some confidence. These environments can be intimidating, so the more familiar you are with them, the more likely you’ll be able to achieve #1. However, this quality doesn’t only apply to people with tons of experience. This CAN be learned, whether very quickly on the job or even before you take your seat (Shout out to Los Angeles Forward and others for their NC education!)
  3. You can confidently assert your power against those trying desperately to preserve the status quo, which is obviously not working for the vast majority. However, the big but about this one: Remember, we’re talking almost exclusively about soft power, so you must recognize that limitation/opportunity. In other words, remember one more time that if you expect to use L.A.’s formal power structures to change things–and quickly, at that–then you’re going to get disillusioned quickly.  

If those qualities describe you, then don’t hesitate for a second to hit me up with any questions or for advice; I would be more than happy to help. And if they don’t describe you, please consider looking elsewhere for support. We need real change in Los Angeles and I plan to dedicate my limited resources to those who are seeking it. Thanks for reading!

B.S.

Brett Shears is the founder of Vote Allies, an advocacy organization working to grant voting rights to historically disenfranchised communities, and a recent staffer for the successful Prop 17 campaign during this year’s elections. Brett can be reached via Twitter: @brettshears, or by email.

EPISODE 39 – TO JOIN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL, OR NOT

In our 39th episode, we chat with Brett Shears, the founder of Vote Allies, an advocacy organization working to grant voting rights to historically disenfranchised communities, and a recent staffer for the successful Prop 17 campaign during this year’s elections. Brett and I have an extensive conversation on L.A.’s Neighborhood Council (NC) system, which is holding its own elections through early 2021. We touch on the origins of the NCs in the pre 2000s era, their strengths and weaknesses given the wealth gap between different communities in Los Angeles, and how a lack of support for NCs from L.A. City Hall continually strains their potential to keep the actual L.A. City Council “in check,” which is what they’re supposed to do! For listeners interested in more insights regarding L.A.’s neighborhood council system, Brett is happy to chat with you. Find him on Twitter at: @brettshears

J.T.

EPISODE 30 – PROPOSITION THEY WANT TO DO WHAT

For our thirtieth episode, listeners are treated to a simple, yet succinct analysis of the various propositions on the ballot for California this upcoming November 3rd, 2020. Listen to the episode while you sit down to fill out your ballot, or while on your way to your local polling station. If you live in California, this October 19th is the final day to register to vote in the U.S. Presidential Election this year. And for a deeper dive, check out a special analysis of local elections in L.A. with yours truly at jimbotimes.com: “What’s in a Vote? How Low Voter Turnout Rewarded Garcetti, O’Farrell.

J.T.