GELFAND’S WORLD - The original idea behind the creation of neighborhood councils was actually pretty simple and at its heart, idealistic.
The various regions of the city were invited to create councils that would collect input from their residents and present those views and opinions to our elected officials. The people would be made closer to their own government because they would have an official system for providing feedback. Is your garbage not getting picked up? Your neighborhood council will send the complaint up through channels. Is your City Council representative spending more time with his donors than with his constituents? Your council can tell him that in his next neighborhood council report card.
That's what the neighborhood councils are for. And to be able to talk back to government, they have to be independent and free of fear of retaliation.
One more thing: If the neighborhood councils are to represent the views and concerns of their constituents, then the constituents -- the voters -- have to be free to choose their own neighborhood council representatives. If they want to elect Trump Republicans or Pelosi Democrats or Sanders Socialists, they must be free to do so. That's what democracy is all about.
It's not surprising that the city government has had a problem with this. In theory, neighborhood council elections are supposed to be free and open, but the original enabling legislation also calls on the councils to be diverse. It's a contradiction in the sense that the voters don't always behave the way the city government would like them to.
The irresistible force vs. the immovable object
In practice, the city and its bureaucrats accepted neighborhood council election results. But over the years, they have made attempts to tailor the elected neighborhood council board members to their own ideal of what board members ought to be. They have not exactly taken away your right to select particular people in your voting, but now they want to do a few nips and tucks in the way your chosen neighborhood council representatives are allowed to think.
Hence the most recent city proposal for an official nip and tuck. You can read it in the letter attached below and signed by Raquel Beltran, General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and Capri Maddox, General Manager of the Civil, Human Rights, and Equity Department.
In brief, the letter explains (as background information) that the City Council and the mayor have adopted a plan that would require neighborhood council board members to take training in implicit bias, and to do so through a training program developed in conjunction with an out of state nonprofit organization at Ohio State University known as the Kerwan Institute.
Those of us who have investigated the test on implicit bias provided by the Kerwan Institute find that it is itself unscientific and biased. As one colleague described, it will find that you are biased no matter how you take it.
But that's just the first part. The training program, which would apparently require the council members to do at least three lengthy trainings, is supposed to cover what the city refers to as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The official training program as envisioned by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (DONE) is called ABLE. One time (in some online meeting) the General Manager of DONE, when asked how much time the ABLE training would take, guessed that it would total about 10 hours.
And the requirements go on. The City Council has added training in gender expressions and gender identity.
In brief, if you weren't a flaming liberal before you were elected to a neighborhood council board, the training is intended to make you one. By the way, I don't intend the use of that term "flaming liberal" in a bad way. I'd like to think I am one. I just object to the idea that a government can force me or anyone else to adopt their preferred ideology.
The bureaucrats want to take over
The letter, attached below, has inspired a substantial backlash in the neighborhood council community: It proposes to solve the problem of our errant thoughts by giving enormous authority to DONE to prescribe training programs we would have to take to remain on our neighborhood councils and then to punish us if we don't obey their orders.
I'll reprint one paragraph (out of many) that gives you the flavor of their approach:
"5. Request the office of the City Attorney, in consultation with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment and any other relevant department, to prepare and present an Ordinance authorizing the Department to amend Neighborhood Council bylaws and to affix Neighborhood Council's bylaws amendments as necessary to promulgate any training procedures, rules or regulations promulgated by the Department."
In brief, DONE would get to rewrite our bylaws to include required training under penalty of being stripped of the right to vote or even to sit on a council board.
What's got neighborhood council participants concerned is that the overall process, if made into an ordinance, gives DONE and its General Manager essentially carte blanche to add any old training programs they wish to the workload. In one slash, they will have reversed the original idea of neighborhood councils from free and independent organizations to slavish servants of the elected officials. In retrospect, that seems to be what some of our elected officials (Antonio Villaraigosa) wanted all along. But it's never been so direct.
There are a lot of reasons for being against the proposal, and a limited number (with their own adherents) in favor.
The opposition point of view: This is forced indoctrination in an ideology. It might as well be scientology or (in an earlier era) support for Lyndon LaRouche, or a limitation on one's political party.
The view in favor: There is a lot of racism in American society, and we should be in favor of wiping it from our midst.
The thing is -- fascists and authoritarians of all stripes have used the views of their opponents to justify forced indoctrination. In one era it was the southeast Asian reeducation camps. Back in the old Soviet Union days, Stalin had his own system. George Orwell wrote a fictional account of just such a system of reeducation in his novel 1984.
The City of Los Angeles would try to argue that they are not Big Brother or Stalin, and what they are trying to do is justifiable and good. But that's what they all say. The issue here is that nobody should be able to punish you for a thought crime.
Legitimate enforcement of legitimate rules
We ought to have rules and laws against physical abuse and real threats. Nobody disagrees with that idea. Actually, we do have such rules. The city can be sued by an employee who suffers abuse in the workplace. I would guess that the current proposal is, among other things, simply an attempt to be risk-averse. It's the city's way to argue that all its employees have been trained, and individual acts of abuse are just that -- individual. It's like the practice of hanging up a sign at a council meeting explaining to people that the law forbids them from disrupting the proceedings.
But the city fathers are missing one point. In their perhaps good-hearted attempt to protect minority populations from bias, they are abusing the nearly 2000 neighborhood council board members. It is OK to send me a letter or email detailing the legal limits on biased action. It is not OK to force me to endure your indoctrination sessions.
The argument from opportunism
There's one more point that a colleague makes. The city has done a pretty good job of keeping the population in the dark about the existence of neighborhood councils. We've been complaining about that issue for close to 20 years at this point. In short, the City Council has not been interested in publicizing the existence of neighborhood councils as a positive aspect of city life. One result of this inaction is that there are a limited number of people who participate and who run for board seats in neighborhood council elections.
The additional training -- essentially unlimited by statute -- would be one more barrier to entry for new participants. We might be willing to take two or three hours of training in total, but I would suggest that when it gets to ten or twenty hours, people are going to just say NO.
And that may very well be what the bureaucrats and City Council members are trying to accomplish in presenting this plan. It's an effective way to take one more slice out of neighborhood council participation and, therefore, influence.
Here's the motion passed by one citywide group of individuals who have been tasked by the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition to consider the concerns raised by DONE's overreaching:
" We oppose the proposed ordinance requested by DONE General Manager Raquel Beltran on March 8, 2022 to give the General Manger unlimited power to determine all Neighborhood Council training requirements and to mandate penalties for failure to take trainings in all NC bylaws."
In lengthy and extensive discussions among neighborhood council participants, it has become clear that some of us are concerned about problems within their own councils and want something done. Rarely do they give specifics, so it's hard to tell whether their complaints are valid, much less whether their proposed remedies are legitimate. But just for the sake of argument, let's imagine that some training would ultimately benefit the system as a whole while appeasing the demands of DONE and the City Council.
Here's an alternate proposal that I believe people could live with: The neighborhood councils and their representatives will negotiate with the city as to the makeup of required training programs, and the total time required of any participant is not to exceed three hours in any two years.
Among other things, this rule would motivate DONE to lobby the state government for a relaxation in the requirement that we all take two hours of ethics training every two years. The current ethics training could very well be reduced to 30 minutes and still teach us what we need to know. Otherwise, the city can provide one more hour of training on whatever they choose, provided that the neighborhood council representatives agree to the topics.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)