The Los Angeles City Council may add additional steps for groups looking to form new neighborhood councils in the city.
The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, which oversees neighborhood councils, proposed changes Jan. 19 to the city’s subdivision ordinance, which allows neighborhood councils to split apart. Under the new rules, the department would be required to notify the city’s Board of Neighborhood Commissioners within 90 days of approving a subdivision application. The board would then decide whether to approve the application, and could make bylaw or boundary changes before permitting the applicant to host an election.
Neighborhood councils are the official advisors to the city council on matters regarding their jurisdictions. Groups that want to break away from their current neighborhood councils need to submit an application that includes new council boundaries, bylaws and a petition of supporters who work or live in the area. Once the group’s application is approved, it also needs to hold an election to determine whether the new council can be formed.
The department is currently reviewing applications for four subdivisions, including one proposing splitting the Westwood Neighborhood Council, according to the city proposal requesting changes to the ordinance. Westwood Forward, a coalition of students and Westwood community members, submitted its application to create the North Westwood Neighborhood Council as a subdivision in December.
Grayce Liu, general manager of the department, said it has the authority to enact changes to the ordinance without the city council’s approval because the ordinance’s current language is broad.
Liu said the department wants to incorporate the changes because individuals who participated in subdivision attempts in previous neighborhood council proposals for Skid Row and Hermon were confused about what they were voting on. Liu said she thinks the commission could prevent those situations by clarifying changes to boundaries and bylaws before the election takes place.
For example, Liu said voters in the Skid Row subdivision election last year were confused about the boundaries of the proposed council. Voters defeated the Skid Row Neighborhood Council proposal by a margin of around 60 votes.
Liu said the department would also be responsible for conducting town halls and reaching out to members of nearby existing neighborhood councils to notify them a subdivision is taking place. She added that some community members in Hermon were not aware of the subdivision.
Although the changes are intended to improve the subdivision process, some community activists said they think the changes will make the process more difficult for communities looking to subdivide.
Michael Skiles, Graduate Students Association president and an organizer for Westwood Forward, said he thinks the department should operate under the current ordinance for the subdivision applications that the department is reviewing. He added he thinks the department is creating a burden on applicants with the additional steps.
Liu said the department estimates it will conduct elections for approved subdivision applications, such as Westwood Forward’s, sometime between late April and June. She added the department is aware many students will be taking finals around this time, and said they will modify the voting date so that students have the opportunity to cast ballots.
However, Skiles said he is still concerned because he thinks that if the new neighborhood council is formed under the proposed timeline, elections to fill its seats would be held over the summer, when the majority of students are no longer on campus.
Skiles also said he thinks it is unfair to give the board the authority to decide whether an election to form a new council can happen because the commissioners are unelected officials.
“If Westwood is to be subdivided by Westwood Forward’s proposal, then that should be a decision of Westwood and Westwood stakeholders,” he said.
Joseph Riser, who helped organize Hermon’s subdivision last year, also said he thinks the revised subdivision process would make it more difficult for new councils to form.
Riser said the current rules enable the commission to make changes to proposed councils’ bylaws and boundaries once they win the election. He added he thinks the proposed rules do not make sense because the board could make changes to a subdivision application before an election even occurs. Riser added there may not be a sufficient voter base to elect a subdivided council in the first place.
“This idea that not only does the department have to review but the board of commissioners has to review, that really is the cart before the horse,” he said. “It will stretch things out and wear out the applicants.”
Riser said he thinks the new rules will make it more difficult for applicants to pursue subdivided councils that better represent their interests because they are already burdened with proving, through an election, that they have support for their council.
“Neighborhood councils are much too large to begin with, so subdividing brings you closer to your local government,” he said.