Won’t You Be my Neighborhood Council?

(Art by Alvan Ung)

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It’s Neighborhood Council Election time, everyone! And what I learned over the past week and a half while asking people about their experience with neighborhood councils was this: many people don’t really know what they are or what they do, and thus, they have no idea which one they’re in or when, why, or how to vote. So today, we’ll chat a little about why you should care about neighborhood elections, some of the positions up for grabs, and how you can vote (and maybe even run next time).

Also of importance: This season, we’ve got 91 of L.A.’s 99 Neighborhood Councils (NCs) holding elections on 12 dates between March 16 and June 15. Due to the ongoing pandemic, elections are vote-by-mail only, and you must request your ballot on the City Clerk’s NC Elections website by a specific date. For a few elections (Greater Wilshire, Hollywood Hills West, Hollywood United, Mid City West, and P.I.C.O.), that day is Tuesday, March 9. 

RELATED: Why the L.A. City Council Has More Power Than the Mayor

What are neighborhood councils and why should I care who’s on them?

Neighborhood Councils were established in 1999 by an amendment to the City Charter. There are 99 of them, all overseen by the city’s Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which was developed simultaneously to promote civic engagement and support the councils. Each neighborhood council receives about $42,000 in public funds every year, which it can use on operational costs, events, programs, community projects, and advocacy. Notably, it can also give grants to nonprofits and public schools.

This dashboard broadly shows the kinds of things each NC spends money on, but for specific examples, we asked artist Kevin Flint, who served on the Lincoln Heights council for several years. He told The LAnd their expenditures included football helmets and art supplies for area students, an annual holiday parade, and shuttle buses to ferry people to and from the Brewery Artwalk event as an alternative to driving or parking on local streets.

Every council is different, in terms of both size and what positions are available. Some have as few as seven board members, while others have over 30. Board members are volunteers so they don’t get paid, but they’re also public officials because we elect them. Most terms are two years, though some NCs may have four-year terms. 

Depending on your neighborhood, you might just have At Large board members who rep the whole thing, or you might have reps for individual areas or districts. You could also have candidates running to represent business owners, tenants, youth, seniors, or other specific interests.

Even though NCs don’t get as much attention as, say, Los Angeles City Council, they still deal with the everyday issues that are likely important to you, such as potholes and sidewalk repairs, affordable housing, land use, public safety, parks, sanitation, sustainability, and transportation. Though NCs don’t make decisions at the city level and don’t possess any legal authority, they act as something of a liaison between residents and City Council, relating your neighborhood’s needs and concerns to a more powerful body with more sway. Considering there are just 15 L.A. City Council districts compared to 99 Neighborhood Councils, it’s a lot easier to bring issues to your NC and get attention there first. Your NC can also submit Community Impact Statements on City Council activities. 

For example, over the past few months, several neighborhood councils have submitted letters regarding a City Council motion to ban sitting, sleeping, and lying within 500 feet of freeways or certain shelters. Several councils, including Del Rey, Wilshire Center-Koreatown, and Echo Park opposed the motion, siding with activists who argued that the ban would criminalize homelessness. But other councils, like Woodland Hills-Warner Center and Venice, supported it. Because NCs must function as a unit and vote on stances like these, the people we elect will determine how our neighborhood responds to potential city legislature like this. So, it’s in your best interest to choose NCs whose values and vision for the neighborhood align with your own.

Even in my own neighborhood of Greater Wilshire, it’s easy to see how candidates differ. Some care about historic preservation, one wants to “re-fund” the police and increase neighborhood safety, another is all about accessibility and inclusivity. One has an entire list of things he’s already worked on as a member of the council’s Outreach Committee, including adding trash containers to high-traffic areas, advocating for parking ticket relief, and commemorating Juneteenth and Korean American Day. Some of these candidates’ interests match mine, others definitely do not. 

You can also weigh in on matters yourself by attending your NC meetings (most are on Zoom these days) and providing public comment. Let your NC know how you feel and hold them to account, if necessary.

In 2019, a man wrote a letter to the Glassell Park NC complaining about “unlawful, unlicensed, and unpermitted” street vendors in the neighborhood, which the council agreed to discuss. Controversy brewed when a board member was accused of saying, “We do not want a Little TJ here,” during that meeting, suggesting an area with several street vendors would be similar to Tijuana—an odd thing to say about a neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, which is 62% Hispanic or Latinx.

L.A Taco covered a subsequent meeting in protest of these comments, where neighbors dug deeper into the immigration and licensing issues some vendors face. Though city street vending regulations are ultimately decided by City Council, Glassell Park’s NC did pass motions to fund vendor assistance clinics, a Know Your Rights workshop, and a vendor guide. They also agreed to bring in an interpreter after a Spanish-speaking vendor was unable to comment at the meeting. 

But maybe the biggest example of a change brought about by a neighborhood council was when a West Adams resident discovered L.A.’s city code required it to hire a petroleum administrator. Despite the fact that L.A. has more than 5,000 wells, the position had gone unfilled since the 1980s. The resident contacted the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council, a bit of a funky name for the council that represents Historic Arlington Heights, West Adams, and Jefferson Park, and soon enough, then-City Council President Herb Wesson authored a motion to hire one. Uduak-Joe Ntuk was named to the position in 2016.

Prior to that, University Park residents had complained of terrible odors and nosebleeds for years before officials finally looked into Allenco Energy’s oil production facility. Its University Park site has since been shut down and the state has ordered its 21 wells permanently sealed. It is currently facing charges for “allegedly defying the law and disregarding its neighbors when it comes to environmental safety and health protections,” according to City Atty. Mike Feuer.

Which Neighborhood Council elections are coming up?

Several NCs will have elections in March on either the 16th or 23rd.

These NCs are holding elections on March 16, meaning you must request your ballot by March 9: Greater Wilshire, Hollywood Hills West, Hollywood United, Mid City West, P.I.C.O.

These NCs are holding elections on March 23, meaning you must request your ballot by March 16: Olympic Park, Westlake North, Westlake South, Wilshire Center-Koreatown

If you’re not sure which NC is yours, you can look it up here. And remember, it’s not just the neighborhood where you live. You may also vote if you work, own property, or are a community stakeholder in a given neighborhood. See a complete list of NCs and dates here.

Once you know your NC, request your ballot online here. It took me less than 10 minutes, but please note you’ll need to upload some form of identification. I took a picture of my state ID with my phone and uploaded it.

Then, all you have to do is research your NC’s election, make your choices, and return your ballot. All ballots are postage-paid this year. Either mail them in or bring them to a dropbox on election day. If you mail your ballot, it must be postmarked by election day, and it will have three days to arrive. 

Thinking about running? Eligible candidates must be 18 years old, and must live, work, own a business or property in the neighborhood, or be a “community interest stakeholder.” That latter could mean this neighborhood is where you go to church, school, or volunteer, or it’s where your child attends school. If you’re between 14-17, you may run for open Youth Seats. Go here to learn more.