By Jill Banks Barad and David Rand Even before the ink dried on the new City Charter that voters overwhelmingly approved in 1999, the business community was deeply suspicious of a new experiment in local government that called for the formation of “neighborhood councils.” This suspicion quickly evolved into open antagonism as some of the councils came to be seen as increasingly anti-business and hostile to development. The main response from the wider business community has been to bitterly complain about the dysfunctional nature of the councils, and to hope that at some point Los Angeles policy makers would come to their senses and pronounce the neighborhood council “experiment” an abject failure. While this kind of bunker mentality carries on in the boardrooms of the City’s prominent business advocacy organizations, and in some of the local Chambers of Commerce, the councils have been steadily expanding their influence. Whether it’s successfully stopping Home Depot’s “project” in Sunland-Tujunga, securing the right to open official council files at City Council, or challenging the DWP on proposed rate hikes, recent events demonstrate that the councils are beginning to flex their collective muscle on issues of local and citywide importance. Nowhere has this growing influence been more pronounced and more vexing to the business community than in the land use arena. Clearly, the rules of the game have changed. If there is any doubt about this phenomenon, one need only study the behavior of some of the City Council members (representing areas as diverse as San Pedro and Woodland Hills) who have begun to openly and proudly use neighborhood councils as the first step in the land use approval process. In some districts, this is having the practical effect of converting the advisory neighborhood councils into quasi micro-planning commissions. The logical takeaway from this confluence of events is that, like them or not, the councils are not going away. They are no longer an experiment, but an ever-evolving part of City government. They are becoming more entrenched and increasingly relevant. As a result, it’s time for the business community to dispense with wishful thinking, change tactics, and develop a more comprehensive and well-thought strategy to bring balance, objectivity and business friendly viewpoints to the councils. It boils down to two distinct choices: business groups can continue to view the councils as a rogue element of City government unworthy of recognition, or pro-business activists can start to participate in the process by running for their local councils thereby improving and balancing the system from within by making the councils more representative of their communities. Sure, serving on the neighborhood council is not terribly glamorous (and it requires yet another time commitment), but participation can yield important results. As active members of Valley business organizations and the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, we have seen firsthand, bringing balance and moderation to the councils on development matters can help to defeat NIMBY-ism and deliver tangible benefits to the community. Buckley School as a Case Study One particularly rewarding experience for us was the opportunity to work on the expansion of the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks. At the time Buckley presented their project plans to our council, the school was under siege by a small group of rabidly anti-development neighborhood activists managed by the local homeowners’ association who were committed to killing the project at any cost. This group made a series of unreasonable demands, threatened litigation and put intense pressure on the neighborhood council to oppose the Buckley expansion plans. Because of the open- mindedness and objectivity of the council (due in no small part to representatives who are active in the local Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood businesses) the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council was able to engage in fruitful discussions with Buckley, win important concessions for the community, and ultimately garner a unanimous vote of the Board to support the school’s project. This is an example of a neighborhood council vetting a proposed development project in a fair and objective manner. Without the neighborhood council, the NIMBY voices would have dominated the debate, falsely creating the impression that the “community” at large opposed the project. The Buckley case study, along with numerous other land use projects we have worked on, show that councils with the right balance can serve as a moderating influence on development matters (if for no other reason than to provide a counterweight to more narrowly focused local homeowners’ associations). Sherman Oaks should not stand out as an anomaly, however. The remedy for imbalanced and dysfunctional neighborhood councils is fairly simple and straightforward business minded individuals should step up and get involved. There is also no reason why the new power recently granted to neighborhood councils to open official City Council files cannot be used to advance a more pro-business agenda. Business-friendly neighborhood councils could partner with groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association to formally introduce new policies at City hall. This could be a powerful coalition building tool to advance important policy goals such as tax reform and other issues of mutual interest. Bringing more objectivity and responsibility to the neighborhood councils is an important civic goal that should be embraced and actively supported by the wider business community. Failing to encourage participation and involvement will only lead to increased frustration as the councils fall captive to NIMBY-ism and narrow parochial interests. As neighborhood councils grow in influence, the business community has a responsibility not just to do battle, but to constructively engage. In the long run, the business community’s participation and active involvement will produce far better results for individual neighborhoods and for the City as a whole than merely railing against the system from the outside. Jill Banks Barad is President of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, Founder and Chair of the Valley Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, owner of Jill Barad & Associates, and a long-time Board member of VICA. David Rand is an attorney and serves as Chair of the Land Use Committee of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council and a Board member of both VICA and the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.
Neighborhood Councils: If You Can’t Beat ’em, Join ’em