THE NEXT MAYORAL DEBATE SCAM
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES - The L.A. mayoral debates continue and once again, reform loses. This time it is the misleadingly named Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils that intends to restrict participation in its debates. Only the big fundraisers get to play.
About two months ago, word began to trickle out that two television stations were joining with the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils in holding two mayoral debates. There is one minor cosponsor, City Watch, but it is not germane to this discussion.
The debate has been packaged to look like a real advance in grassroots power. Superficially, it reads as if the neighborhood councils all around the city have banded together to host the mayoral candidates. This would be a significant misunderstanding.
The Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils is not really a coalition of neighborhood councils at all, but rather a tightly run private organization that does not even manage to follow its own bylaws. It is run by a Steering Committee that was self-selecting from the start, continues to be so, and in spite of its published bylaws requirements, has never held the elections required to pick its members.
Some background: Since 2001, the city of Los Angeles has been in the process of creating advisory boards to represent the large mass of private citizens. One might think of it as the peoples' own lobby. A city Charter amendment passed in 1999 provided for these boards, to be known as neighborhood councils. Each council is the product of local organizing. Each has gone through a laborious certification process that involves review by the city's Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE). DONE is responsible for oversight, funding and discipline. A Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC, pronounced - no kidding - "bonk") has the ultimate authority for certifying each new neighborhood council.
In 2001, as James Hahn took office as mayor, the anticipated neighborhood council system was barely moving. DONE and BONC were ineffective. No neighborhood council had been officially certified. To his credit, Hahn appointed architect Bill Christopher as the new chair of the BONC and appointed Greg Nelson, a virtual firestorm of energy, as the General Manager of DONE.
Together, these two made the process work. They did it by using official government channels and by simultaneously shaping private volunteer organizations to help people along. The evidence of their success is clear: Within a few months, the neighborhood councils were being certified. As of this time, there are more than 80 officially certified neighborhood councils, representing more than three million of the city's residents.
One of those unofficial private organizations that was used to help jump-start new neighborhood councils was, in fact, the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils.
Contrary to what its name suggests, the Alliance is not and has never been a coalition of neighborhood councils or even some sort of creation of the neighborhood councils. It was, rather, the brainchild of Bill Christopher and a small group of supporters. As the Alliance's web site (www.allncs.org) explains, it is a private organization that exists under the umbrella of PLAN/LA (People for Livable and Active Neighborhoods in Los Angeles), a nonprofit corporation Christopher had created earlier.
In the formative years from 2001 through 2003, the Alliance provided a place for neighborhood organizers to gather and hear advice from Greg Nelson and Bill Christopher, among others, as they worked through the complexities of creating their local neighborhood councils.
As the process of covering most of the city with neighborhood councils approaches completion, the Alliance finds itself in somewhat the same situation that the March of Dimes faced when its mission to find a cure for polio was actually achieved through the invention of effective vaccines. What to do next? You can either say mission accomplished and vote yourself out of existence, or you can look for other things to do.
The Alliance does have ambitions for the future. Its web site describes its intent to become an organization which would, for all practical purposes, become the representative and clearing house for all the neighborhood councils. In order to do this, it has been asking the individual neighborhood councils to join the Alliance officially. It has a plan for a representative body of delegates from each council who would vote for Alliance officers and Steering Committee members.
For whatever reason, the Alliance has never managed to achieve even this level of quasi-official status. The neighborhood councils have not exactly been pounding down its doors to sign up. Actually, according to the Alliance's web site, the number of neighborhood councils that have officially joined the alliance is zero.
Well, perhaps the Alliance web site is a little out of date. When asked, "How many neighborhood councils have joined the Alliance officially?", three different members of the Alliance's steering committee gave me three different, vague answers suggesting a number between zero and five. A fourth steering committee member simply refused to speak to me about the question when asked.
However you want to put it, it is clear that the Alliance does not speak for neighborhood councils. Nevertheless, the upcoming mayoral candidate debates are being peddled to the public as being sponsored by the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils, under the carefully unstated implication that the Alliance is somehow representative. This is thoroughly misleading.
It's like the old joke about the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire. Or the old Cold War line that any country calling itself a Peoples' Democratic Republic is neither the peoples' nor democratic nor a republic. The Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils is neither citywide nor an alliance nor made up of neighborhood councils.
Why is this important?
It's because once again, we will be frustrated as the insiders have their way to the detriment of the rest of us.
Central to the question is the reformist impulse that motivates many of the participants in the neighborhood council system. Many are concerned about the fact that campaign contributions determine who gets to run for office effectively and worse yet, that campaign contributions affect the conduct of elected officials.
Reformists have been complaining about the cost of political television advertising for many years. That cost is a barrier to all but those who are either personally wealthy or effective fundraisers. People who are talented and hard working, but not rich or good at begging for dollars can forget about competing.
The reform impulse includes the desire to change this system. But it is this reformist impulse that has suffered at the hands of supposedly liberal organizations. As explained previously, the League of Women Voters and the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters restricted participation in their televised debates to the fundraising champs.
Now the Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils promises to do the same. Rather than take a reformist tack and open the debates - and, thereby, free tv time - to more candidates, they have adopted the same excuse used by the other groups: Only those candidates who qualify for matching funds under the city's plan for partial public funding need apply. The Alliance insiders have made clear that they, and they alone are in charge.
Why is this so important? One answer is that the hard but important questions may not get asked. I would like to hear the mayor asked why he appointed his fundraiser and other political hacks to oversee the airport, the seaport, and the water department, and I would like to hear the City Council members gunning for Mayor Hahn be asked why they didn't do better oversight of these appointments. I would also like the candidates to face pointed questioning about whether they will refrain from dirty campaigning, and whether they have any thoughts about doing something either to stem or to mitigate the area's population explosion.
Once again, the lone Republican who might stand a chance at the polls is probably going to be left out. (Five other people who might charitably be referred to as unlikely candidates are also to be left out.) In their absence, the public will miss any original insights or conservative-oriented responses they might have to offer.
Some disclosure is necessary. I have been an enthusiastic participant in the neighborhood council system going back to June, 2000. It should be made clear that this column deviates from the traditional practices of "objective" journalism; that is to say, it is not written by someone who is otherwise apart from the events being described. Quite to the contrary. I have been an enthusiastic participant in Citywide Alliance meetings for more than three years. I have also been openly critical about the way a closed Steering Committee runs the Alliance. I know many of the participants mentioned here, including members of the BONC and several DONE staffers.
On Saturday, January 15, 2005, there was a regularly scheduled meeting of the Alliance. People from all around the city attended. There was a serious and prolonged discussion of the Alliance's refusal to include additional mayoral candidates in the upcoming debates. Bill Christopher presided over the discussion and, over numerous objections including my own, reiterated the Steering Committee's position - only candidates who have qualified for matching funds will be invited to participate.
As the discussion progressed, it became increasingly clear that the Alliance has set itself apart even from those that it seeks to recruit as representatives of member organizations. It also made clear that it will not behave by the rules that neighborhood councils are required to follow.
As a part of Los Angeles City Government, the neighborhood councils have an obligation to conduct themselves in certain ways. Their legal ability to hold a candidates' forum is strictly limited. Any neighborhood council wanting to hold such an event is required to invite all candidates who have qualified for the ballot, is required to give all candidates equal time, and is prohibited from officially favoring any candidate over any other.
That is the law, and that is why the so-called Los Angeles Citywide Alliance of Neighborhood Councils Mayoral Debates is such a misleading title. No neighborhood council or coalition of neighborhood councils could legally bar any candidate from participating. No neighborhood council or coalition of councils could legally do other than offer equal time to every candidate on the ballot.
One participant in the January 15 meeting managed to find a little virtue in the Alliance's closed and private existence: The Alliance doesn't have to obey the same rules that we have to follow when we go back to our neighborhood councils. It can run the debates any way it darn well pleases. It can do so in spite of the strong objections coming from people it pretends to represent.
When the residents of Los Angeles watch the debates on television, they should do so in the knowledge that the neighborhood councils are not and cannot be the legitimate sponsors. The television stations running the debates should make this point clear, even if the so-called Alliance will not.