The Neighborhood Council is an odd and new community group that is unique from any other community group in the country. It’s a grand experiment in community activism, and Studio City (a unique community in its own right) is at the center of it.
The idea of the councils came when citizens felt so disenfranchised with city government that the San Fernando Valley considered seceding from the City of Los Angeles and becoming its own city—and it would be a formidable one in its own right.
There isn’t any money involved. There’s no power, money or glamour for being on the Neighborhood Council, and as an outsider and observer since 2010 of the process, I can also attest that for some it’s a thankless job. You become a flashpoint for problems of all your neighbors, and you also get the blame.
SCNC President John Walker has tried to protect his council from some of the backlash, but that is not entirely the right idea (in my opinion). These are elected people and they do have control of about $37,000 in tax money that gets distributed at their will.
In the past four years, I’ve had a chance to intimately observe the Studio City Neighborhood Council. I’ve also seen how this group is one of the most misunderstood community groups I’ve ever come across in nearly four decades of reporting.
This Thursday is the day of the elections. Elections in the past have generated more than 1,000 voters. Two years ago, 767 voters turned out for Studio City. Expectations are that this year can be more—and that is great for the community.
First of all, what the heck is it? Los Angeles started this unique Neighborhood Council system as a response to angry and disenfranchised citizens who felt that their tax dollars weren’t coming back to their community—particularly in the more wealthy communities like Studio City. That resulted in the Valley Secession movement.
About a decade ago, these advisory committees were formed as a touchstone for community concerns, and as advisors and sounding boards to the elected fulltime Los Angeles City officials. Now there are 95 councils across the city, and they control an amount that at one point was about $45,000 that they can distribute to the community, for outreach, for events, to schools and more.
For the past years, I’ve heard criticisms and concerns, as well as hundreds of emails, from people who have accused those on the Council as benefitting from their positions and being power hungry. I find these accusations baffling—and they’re usually coming from people who haven’t attended one of the council meetings.
First of all, there’s no money involved for any of the Council members. They don’t get paid, they don’t get a stipend, and they don’t get a free car. In fact, their reimbursements for Council expenses are all public, they are rigorously screened and pre-approved, and in many instances they are simply donated out of the Council member’s own pocket.
Then, there’s the perceived “power.” Well, maybe a city councilman will recognize you because of your position on the Neighborhood Council, but it doesn’t get you any chance to cut corners if a city building inspector comes knocking at your door. If anything, they’re more stringent about making you follow the rules. Power? Their Council badge and 50-cent may get them a cup of coffee. Actually, no, it won’t, that would cost them $3.25 for a Tall Café Mocha.
There’s no “power” being on the Neighborhood Council. Maybe you know better where to go in the city for help, maybe you get hints about cutting through some red tape, but there’s no particular advantage. You don’t get a free parking space at City Hall. You don’t get to go to movies for free. You don’t get in free to George Clooney’s house when President Obama comes to town.
What about the glitz and glamour? Well, there is a little of that. The Studio City Neighborhood Council has the clout of attracting every person running for Los Angeles Mayor, as well as city, state and national politicians.
One of my favorite photos is of Council President John Walker in a sea of legendary actors taken during the 75th anniversary of Republic Pictures (the site of the CBS Studio Radford lot). Jane Withers came up to ask me, “Who is that nice man over there, he’s cute!”
There’s no secrecy—everything is covered by the Brown Act. How you vote is public, and often scrutinized. There’s little privacy—emails, phone calls and house visits come to each of the members at all hours of the day or night as they become the sounding board for complaints from everyone in the community.
It surprised me when I asked outgoing longtimer Ben Neumann how he would make serving on the Neighborhood Council something that was “palatable” to the average person.
No, he didn’t want to make the job sound palatable. He didn’t want to make it sound easy, because it is not. It is a commitment for which you get no recognition, it is a fulltime job for which you get no money, it is a high-profile job that attracts more criticism than kudos.
From what I gather, Studio City has one of the best-attended Neighborhood Councils of the 95 in the city. It’s held on a major movie studio lot (a former Neighborhood Council member is the manager of the CBS Studios lot), and the crowds often exceed two or three dozen people. Other councils usually have more people on the dais than in the audience. But, there are many nights when approaching midnight, it is just a handful of stalwarts left in the audience, and the full panel of council members still haggling out the neighborhood business.
One person who attends many, many Neighborhood Councils throughout the city once told me, “This is a great one to cover, you must have a lot of fun covering these meetings.” Fun? Not quite the word I would use, but I have to tell you, there is no other Neighborhood Council I would rather cover—no matter what the make-up of it is.
Then, there’s the election on Thursday at Walter Reed Middle School. If you have an interest in Studio City, if you want to see democracy at work at a true grassroots level, come by and witness it between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.
See all of the candidate’s statements on the DONE website: empowerla.org/scnc/studio-city-nc-2014-election
The election takes place on Thursday, March 20 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Walter Reed Middle School in Studio City at 4525 Irvine Ave.