GELFAND’S WORLD - There has been tension between the city's neighborhood council participants and the appointed bureaucrats who want to rule over them. The latest outrage is a proposed Code of Conduct that comes out of the 7-member Board of Neighborhood Commissioners. It would be amusing were it not so threatening. You can see for yourself in the text, which is appended at the bottom. But first, let's consider how neighborhood council participants from all over the city have reacted.
In brief, we have created what we call a Declaration, which presents our own views on what the city Charter says, vs. the continued overreach by city government.
Here is the Declaration:
Whereas, the people of the City of Los Angeles enacted, in the charter of 1999, a system of neighborhood councils, whose missions are “to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs” and,
Whereas, in order to fulfill these missions, neighborhood councils must be empowered to operate as independently as possible of the city’s officials and agencies and not subject to undue influence or control by those officials and agencies,
Therefore, the neighborhood councils of the City of Los Angeles declare:
Neighborhood councils board members are elected officials of the City of Los Angeles.
The method by which board members are chosen shall be determined solely by the bylaws of each council.
The sole authority to censure, suspend, remove or otherwise discipline a board member is vested in the neighborhood council of which that individual is a board member.
Each board shall determine the composition of its bylaws and no other agency or commission of the city, with the exception of board composition and boundaries of the council, may alter or amend those bylaws following initial council certification and approval by the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners.
No official or agency of the City of Los Angeles may delay or otherwise impede the action of a neighborhood council to amend its bylaws or rules.
Neighborhood councils shall be consulted prior to the appointment of individuals to the Board of Neighborhood Commissioners and the appointment of any individual as the general manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
Pretty simple. We see ourselves as free men and women who meet with the people of our districts to discuss our mutual concerns. We claim the right to debate issues publicly and to communicate our shared findings to all levels of government. We accept the fact that discussion can, at times, be robust, and that not all people will agree on everything.
Those of you who make a close reading of the Declaration will find that we have added additional elements that go to technical matters such as our right to create our own bylaws. That's because this right comes from the original City Charter language and the implementing legislation that came out of it at the time. The city government has, in recent years, started a process of writing and imposing new language into our bylaws that in several cases goes directly opposite to explicit choices that the founders of neighborhood councils made at the time the city recognized them as official.
The other thing you will recognize in the Declaration is that we reject outright any power the city has to order us around in terms of presenting ourselves at some function, or undergoing unwanted and useless trainings, or otherwise functioning as if we are employees of the city. We are not employees, we don't have contracts, or get paid, or have bargaining units. We are, however, elected officials.
In Contrast, the City Government Point of View
The Charter of the city of Los Angeles creates the neighborhood council system. In so doing, it defines the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) as the working agency which is supposed to assist the councils in their doings. The Charter also creates a Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) whose main function is to consider applications to form new neighborhood councils. This job has largely been completed, in that there are 99 neighborhood councils covering most of the city, with a couple of areas remaining that refuse to join the neighborhood council system for their own reasons.
But the BONC also claims for itself the right to set overall policy for the system. In a few cases over the past 20 years, they have been helpful. For example, an early version of the BONC fixed a problem in which some neighborhood councils had lost enough board members that they could not reach quorum in their meetings. It wasn't that much of a problem except for one or two councils, but the BONC (after dithering and debating for years) eventually created a solution.
But in recent years, the BONC and DONE have become obsessed with trying to control the way people talk to each other at neighborhood council meetings. Apparently there are people who are rude or sarcastic, and they have managed to hurt other peoples' feelings. The BONC is also a bit obsessed with the way people express themselves in their private lives, and has tried to regulate how neighborhood council participants communicate to each other or to the public over social media such as Facebook.
Out of these concerns, the BONC has created various iterations of what they call the Code of Conduct. Some of us are very concerned about the bureaucratic overreach that BONC has shown. Perhaps the worst such overreach is the newly proposed Code of Conduct which we have appended below. I should warn you that it goes on for 8 pages, but only the last 5 pages are the code itself. The first 3 are the insipid rationalizations for creating the latest code (the mayor told them) and threats to those of us board members who don't sufficiently obey them. And one of the things we are supposed to obey is a demand that I cannot and will not obey (see below, as in Signing in Blood).
(See the entire proposal appended at the bottom.)
Let me start by pointing out the main clash between our Declaration and the proposed Code of Conduct. The Code of Conduct comes from a point of view that seems to be the prevailing thought among BONC commissioners. It is that neighborhood council board members are equivalent to middle school children who need to be controlled and sometimes disciplined, lest they get out of hand. It turns out that getting out of hand can be as simple as wishing to communicate our views to members of the state legislature (as opposed to leaving that to the City Council). It also seems to include disagreements among board members that lead to less than unanimous votes.
But mainly, the need to keep us on a tight leash comes from the desire that there be no racial, social, or religious friction among board members or the public. Thus, as I keep pointing out, the city cannot seem to find room for Republicans in our neighborhood council system, or at least the ones who speak out in favor of positions taken by the previous president.
You think that last sentence is an exaggeration? Think it's a bit argumentative? Just read the proposed Code of Conduct in its entirety and then tell me I am wrong.
Mind you, I wholly disagree with the followers of the previous president, but I also disagree with those who would try to use government power to hinder our freedom of speech or freedom of the press. Right now, the people in power in Los Angeles have crossed that line.
Let's consider just a few of the elements in this proposed Code of Conduct.
"WHEREAS, the Commission has long recognized that a Neighborhood Council System that is physically and emotionally safe and secure for all Board Members promotes good social responsibility, increases Stakeholder attendance, and supports community engagement;"
I don't have a problem with that part about "physically safe." It's the remainder that is at issue. I don't see how any organization that deals in political matters will always be "emotionally safe and secure." Generations of Supreme Court decisions defending our right to robust debate and discussion go exactly contrary to the proposed policy. Put it this way: Must we defend the rights of Nazis or White Supremacists to be free from angry words in response to their hatred? I would hope that such people do not find my neighborhood council to be emotionally safe and secure. And, by the way, I feel the same way about any supporter of the former president who wants to parrot his words. Those people have the right to have their say in my neighborhood council (contrary to the proposed Code of Conduct) but should be subject to the response of those who find it offensive.
The really offensive part of the proposed Code is the part which gives the city government (through DONE and BONC) the power to throw me off the neighborhood council board for failure to follow its exacting rules. And if you read the proposed Code carefully, you will find that it would be possible to find just about any human being guilty of something and thereby subject to being removed.
Here is one section that I have copied so as to demonstrate one of those problems:
- " This Policy prohibits inequitable conduct
Inequitable Conduct is any inappropriate conduct based on a Protected Category or protected activity. Inequitable Conduct includes any instance of unwelcome conduct directed at one or more persons, that is committed by any Neighborhood Council Board or Committee member, because of the person’s actual or perceived Protected Category(ies) or protected activity(ies). Similarly unwelcome conduct that is sexual in nature may also violate this Policy.
Inequitable Conduct may be similar in nature to conduct defined as discrimination, harassment, and sexual harassment under this Policy, although to be considered Inequitable Conduct, it will be lesser in severity. It may include but is not limited to verbal or behavioral conduct that communicates hostile, derogatory or negative attitudes toward a person or persons because of their protective class or perceived protective class."
Here is the English language translation: If any other person takes exception to anything you do or say, be it a raised eyebrow, an innocuous phrase you speak, or a book you happen to be holding, then you can be charged with inequitable conduct and punished by the authorities. Notice that there is no requirement that your conduct actually be offensive (although that would traditionally fall under freedom of speech), but must merely be "unwelcome conduct." That word "unwelcome" carries a whole world of meaning, but certainly includes anything that can merely be perceived as offensive. You said something and I find it offensive, so you are guilty.
There are parts that aren't offensive in the code, but they are irrelevant.
We are supposed to enforce a physically safe environment in our meetings. I don't see how anybody could disagree with that. But the way we do this in a civilized society is to call the police. So here is the extent to which I agree with the BONC members. If any neighborhood council board holds meetings in which violence occurs or is threatened, then their failure to call the police is negligent on their part. By the way, there have been instances in which neighborhood council leaders asked DONE to supply uniformed officers to protect the public at a board meeting and were turned down. Who takes the blame for that?
One final word on the worst offense
In a previous argument over an earlier Code of Conduct, I argued that I would be willing to affirm that I had received the Code of Conduct, but I would not sign that I agreed to all parts of it. That was because then, as now, there are parts which are improper, un-American, and would violate everyone's rights to freedom of speech. Since that time, we have been required to affirm that we have received the code, but we are not required to affirm that we agree with it.
In the final paragraphs of the Code, we find the following words:
" By signing this document, I acknowledge that I have received a copy of this Code of Conduct. I acknowledge that I have been informed of the expectation to abide by the Code of Conduct at the time of my appointment, selection, or election to the Board or appointment to the Committee.
"I also understand that if I am found to have violated the Code of Conduct, I may be subject to censure and/or removal by my Neighborhood Council board and suspension and/or removal by action of the Department or by the Commission."
The first paragraph is simply a reiteration of the previous requirement. I'm fine with affirming that I have been told of your latest rules, no matter how much i may disagree with them, and no matter how unenforceable they may turn out to be if they are litigated.
But that second paragraph concedes that the BONC and DONE have the right to remove me from my lawfully elected seat on the board of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council if they should determine that I have violated any one of their incredibly vague rules.
In a word, No. If the city wants to charge me with inequitable conduct because somebody I don't know disagrees with something I say at a board meeting, I would challenge the city in court. I refuse to sign any such concession in advance, because it seems to preclude me from having standing in such a lawsuit. On the other hand, the BONC might wish to tell me that I would still have the right to sue (please do so in writing), which would be an admission on their part that their wording is, in fact, meaningless as a matter of law.
Meanwhile, the board members and participants in the neighborhood council system have their own proposed Declaration which is where we started this discussion, and which can be seen to be both an answer to this proposed Code of Conduct and a direct challenge. I hope that the neighborhood councils of the city of Los Angeles support and endorse this Declaration as soon as possible, to make clear to the new mayor and the City Council that their bureaucracy needs to be reined in.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics. He can be reached at [email protected].)