LA Neighborhood Council System’s Future


Open Letter to LA City Council President Herb Wesson

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

As the outgoing president of the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council, which you and the Los Angeles City Council may have heard about over the past few months in connection with the homeless crisis and related matters, I would urge you to believe little of what you hear and only half of what you read about this.

In our district, there are many good people with a social conscience who believe in the humane and compassionate treatment of this city’s dispossessed.

The Power of the Neighborhood Council

I am here today, in part, to pay my respect to you. It has been my honor to serve this city during your leadership. Outside of the neighborhood council system, there are few places to learn and develop leadership skills and political courage in the civic arena. Your leadership has served as an instruction manual for many such as myself, in regards to conducting council meetings and doing it with dignity and resolve.

In my position, I’ve also been subjected to slander and even profane bigotry in both public comments and social media. I have taken certain solace and awkward comfort knowing that even the leader of this council has to endure harsh public criticism. You have taught me a great deal by your example and I wish to thank you. You are a scholar of the civic enterprise.

I do not come bearing any fancy certificates, but I do bring my heartfelt thanks. I and many others stand with you in your defiance of the hate speech that was recently directed towards you and others on this council.

While I am a longtime advocate and defender of free speech, I have found that there is a rising need for a new civility in conducting our common affairs and that hate speech and threats do nothing to further the common good. Yet it must be remembered that civility is a two-way street, and that the city with all of its powers, needs to show respect to its citizens, in order to receive it in return. This need for civility, however, should not exclude the necessity of speaking truth to power. For “power,” as Frederick Douglass once wrote, “concedes nothing without a demand.” And neighborhood councils, when empowered, should demand much of this city.

So, I am here today to thank you for your guidance and leadership, but to also fulfill what the neighborhood councils are chartered to do—advise the city.

I tend to adhere to the Jeffersonian theory that, “the cure for bad government is not more laws but more democracy.”

And to that precept, this city must in the end recognize its place in the history of this nation.

It is long past time that a city of this size in geography and population can be adequately represented by just 15 council members who serve a growing constituency of more than 250,000 souls in each district.

The time is fast approaching that the neighborhood council structure should evolve into a kind of bicameral governance system. This is not an uncommon solution in democracies that attain significant size and budget. Surely, this will not happen because a few wish it to be done, but will become a political necessity to avoid another attempt at secession, a rebellion, or in the aftermath of yet another riot.

My advice to the city is that the incivilities and obstructions to new developments that could ease the housing crisis are due to a sense of disempowerment among our citizens and neighborhood councils in the outreaches of our great city.

City council members have often viewed neighborhood councils in their districts, in one of two ways: as a nuisance that should be ignored when they can’t be placated with soft platitudes—or as a respected partner at the grassroots level with which to engage in thoughtful dialog about the quality of life in this city.

The current neighborhood council system is just one step in the evolutionary process of civic engagement that needs to be nourished, not poisoned at its root. But I have been a witness to another development within the neighborhood council structure: the subversion of the neighborhood councils at the hands of city council members for political gain.

This has been my experience in Council District 15 where community surrogates, through subterfuge and connivance, have gained control of key council boards to dampen criticism of the council member as a means to maintain control before a coming election. This is a dangerous tactic as many of these “surrogates” are so ill prepared for public service and antagonistic to the goal of attaining any civil discourse. Their tactics alone provide evidence enough of this.

I fear that the populist, nativist fires raging in other parts of the country are rising up here in Los Angeles amongst some neighborhood councils and are being supported by some council members and their staffs. This is going to do great harm to this city. There are better individuals of higher integrity who have been driven from public service by those who spread fear and slander to gain position.

What I ask of you, President Wesson, are these:

  1. To empanel a commission of 15 former neighborhood council presidents based upon their seniority and experience, chosen by you and not the local council office, to review and reform the DONE election manual.
  2. To empanel a commission formed at the next Congress of Neighborhood Empowerment to draft a Citizen’s Bill of Rights for the City of Los Angeles.
  3. To provide enough resources so that each city council district has its own DONE lawyer who will actually attend meetings so as to provide timely legal advice and represent them as their client rather than protecting the department and the city first.

Lastly, to Mr. Joe Buscaino—it has been more than 10 months since the Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council brought an awareness citywide that links the growth of homelessness and this city’s affordable housing deficit in your district. Since then, you have ignored the advice of and disempowered that council on the issue. Only recently have you come to realize that 88 percent of the homeless in your district are indeed longtime constituents — not people bussed in from neighboring cities. By law and your position, you must represent them too. Until now, you have not done an adequate job.

It is also true that by your direction some $800,000 of public monies have been expended on enforcement of city ordinances against the homeless. This effort has done little to reduce the size of the population in distress or alleviate their suffering. When you are ready to start solving this problem rather than blaming either the victims or the messengers, you should call me. There are immediate solutions that could be implemented that would better use those public monies you’re doling out on the issue.

In the meantime, President Wesson, I call on you to request the controller’s office to execute an audit of the costs related to encampment sweeps and other enforcement measures related to criminalizing the homeless rather than solving the problem. And, Councilman Harris-Dawson, I am available at your invitation to testify in detail on the matters addressed herein.

As you will see, a more enlightened approach will—by necessity and by the courage of people of goodwill and conscience in the City of Los Angeles—triumphs in the end.



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